Kelly Lynn Thomas
“Girls don’t like Star Wars.”
“You just want attention.”
“You’re not a real fan.”
Almost every woman and nonbinary person in the Star Wars fandom I’ve met has related a story wherein a white, cis male “fan” makes this sort of declaration at them.
I’m sure this hasn’t happened to every woman and nonbinary fan, and of course there are a ton of great guys out there who don’t feel the need to tell others whether or not they’re allowed to like something on the basis of their gender. But it happens often enough, to enough of us, that it’s A Problem.
I remember the first time it happened to me. In fourth grade, a boy named Brad pulled out a Lambda-class shuttle action figure at lunch to show it to the other boys and play with it while we ate.
I asked if I could join in, and he looked at me, shocked, and said, “You like Star Wars? But you’re a girl.” Needless to say, I was not invited to join the group zooming the shuttle around and making pew pew noises between bites of pizza.
Most recently, it happened last summer, in the indie bookstore where I work part time. A man came in and started asking for science fiction recommendations. Somehow (with me, it always seems to happen), we got on the topic of Star Wars. He confessed that he didn’t care for The Last Jedi and thought Luke was too overpowered in the movie’s final scene.
Me, being the Legends nerd that I am, said something like, “I mean, in the New Jedi Order series he could Force project entire ships to trick the Yuuzhan Vong, so it’s not like we don’t have precedent.” He changed the subject to the Thrawn trilogy, and when I was knowledgeable about that, too, he tried changing the subject again, continually trying to “catch” a flaw in my knowledge. When he couldn’t (though I actually don’t know every last bit of Star Wars trivia), he wandered away and eventually left without buying anything.
I could fill a book with every moment of gatekeeping I’ve experienced. It’s so pervasive in fact, that I have a list of easy fall back answers when this problem comes up:
“Would I have multiple Star Wars tattoos if I weren’t a ‘real’ fan?”
“Would I have spent more than fifteen years and over a thousand dollars chasing down autographs of the original cast if I weren’t a ‘real’ fan?”
“Would I have five long boxes full of Star Wars comics, purchased monthly since 1999, if I weren’t a ‘real’ fan?”
“Would I have spent hours of my time and hundreds of dollars creating costumes of my favorite characters if I weren’t a ‘real’ fan?”
As I write this, I’m wearing a Star Wars t-shirt and a pair of Star Wars pajama pants. On my bed is a Yoda blanket, and a pair of Loth wolves watching over me. My dog is sleeping at my feet: her name is Jaina, though her primary interest in the Force is that it would make it easier to steal my French fries.
In my closet hang multiple Star Wars cardigans, dresses, and skirts. Upstairs, in addition to my comics, are about three large plastic tubs full of Star Wars Hallmark Keepsake ornaments that my grandmother has bought me every year since the series debuted in the ‘90s. The cake topper at my wedding featured Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. My friend’s housewarming gift to me and my partner was a giant painting of Grand Moff Tarkin, hung proudly in our dining room.
That’s just the surface of my collection, and doesn’t do a good job of explaining how much I love Star Wars—or why. It doesn’t cover the bonding experiences with my dad at Star Wars Celebration or the morning conversations about the EU my friend Kieth and I had before high school each day.
It doesn’t capture the spark of joy and excitement I feel when I crack open a new Star Wars book or comic. It doesn’t explain how I grew up with Jaina and Jacen Solo, learning about life and what it means to be a decent human right along with them.
It doesn’t tell you that I ran to my car and sobbed after work the day Carrie Fisher died. Not just because Princess Leia’s toughness and spunk make me feel validated as a kid, but because Carrie’s openness with her mental illness allowed me to make peace with my own brokenness as an adult.
While I do genuinely love and enjoy all my stuff, by itself it can’t explain how Star Wars got me through some rough years; how it’s always been there for me—providing an escape, yes, but more importantly, giving me hope.
Gatekeepers are not entitled to these stories, or my reasons for loving Star Wars. It should be enough that I do.
Here’s the thing, though: Even though gatekeepers never win these arguments with me, their consistent attempts mean I’m constantly on the defensive. I always feel like I need to prove my geekiness and earn my space at the geek table with each new interaction, regardless of the other person’s intentions.
I bring up my collection and other external markers of fandom because it’s an easy way to “prove” my status as a “real” fan. It’s putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and it usually works. Whoever is trying to out me as a poser realizes pretty quickly they’ve picked on the wrong fangirl. But does that make me more likely to gatekeep others in an effort to ward off the gatekeepers?
I’ve been a hardcore Star Wars fangirl for more than twenty years. It’s relatively easy for me to provide the receipts that show I am, in fact, a “real” fan, whatever that means.
But what about the influx of new fans that have come with the sequel trilogy? What about casual fans who enjoy the films and perhaps a few books or toys here and there? What about fans who enjoy aspects of the franchise those “real” fans don’t like (looking at you, Episode I!). What about people who love Star Wars with all their hearts but don’t have the disposable income to spend hundreds of dollars on replica lightsabers, action figures, and other merchandise?
They’re often held out of fandom by gatekeepers, discouraged by being made to feel that they aren’t welcome in fan spaces, and worse, aren’t and never will be good enough to be welcome. It’s even worse for women of color, whose gatekeeping experience also includes racism on top of the sexism that defines many of the encounters female, femme, and nonbinary fans encounter.
With all this baggage, meeting other Star Wars fans can be an anxiety-ridden experience. Every new interaction leads to a well of questions: Will they think I’m a poser? Or will they think I’m too obsessed with Star Wars? If I mention a piece from my collection I’m proud of, or the scope of my collection, will they think I’m trying to one-up them? Will they think I’m bragging if I bring up all my Celebration trips and signed books? Will they think that I don’t think they’re a “real” fan?
Kind of saps the fun out of meeting potential new friends, doesn’t it?
Gatekeeping—and especially learned, internalized gatekeeping—gets in the way of enjoying Star Wars and making friends. It doesn’t keep all women out, and perhaps it’s better than it used to be. But it does keep some women, trans, and nonbinary folks out, and that’s not acceptable. It’s time for change.
All I—and most fans—want is to find people who share my love for the galaxy far, far away. We want to geek out about cosplay and the cool stuff we’ve accumulated and the cool stuff we can’t afford but dream about owning one day. We want to swap con stories and talk about moments when Star Wars was there for us. All I want is like minded people to connect with.
I can’t control what others do or say, but I can control myself and my actions. Someone, somewhere will once again try to prove women don’t like Star Wars and we’re only here for the male attention.
To that person, and every gatekeeper who follows, I say, “Do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars? Do you remember what you loved about it? Why it was and still is important to you? Even if your experiences or reasons differ from mine, we both love the same thing. Let’s celebrate what we have in common instead of making it a competition.”
And to every Star Wars fan who’s ever experienced gatekeeping, who has ever felt unwelcome in the fandom because they don’t like the “right” thing, or have the “right” toy, or know the exact piece of trivia some tub of bantha poodoo is testing them with: You belong. You’re a real fan if you say you’re a fan, and no one can take that away from you.
Star Wars, after all, has always been about family and friendship. Let’s leave the gatekeepers to their own serfdom (unless, of course, they want to leave their gatekeeping ways behind, in which case, welcome to the party!). Let’s celebrate the collections and cosplays and moments we’re proud of. Let’s enjoy the galaxy together.