Black lives matter in sci-fi and fantasy, too. Fandoms need to do better.
Toxic fandom is a symptom of a much bigger problem.
On May 27, Star Wars actor John Boyega tweeted, “I really fucking hate racists.”
Boyega was responding to George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, but a group of ignorant Star Wars “fans” saw an opportunity to police Boyega and stop him from speaking truth to power.
Some argued that he was being discriminatory towards white fans, with one accusing the actor of using George Floyd’s death as an excuse to “spout hate against white people.”
Those fans couldn’t fathom the idea that Boyega was standing up against racism and that they were perpetuating the very thing he was calling attention to. Gasp! What would Disney say? How could Boyega so boldly call out racism when he was in Star Wars movies? Think of the children!
It’s high time that sci-fi fandoms like Star Wars, Marvel, and DC acknowledge the barrage of racist hate, mistreatment, and biases that too often shape fan reactions to Black actors and their characters.
Boyega has been the target of racism ever since being cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, initially because some people objected to a “Black stormtrooper.” It hasn’t let up since. A later rumor claimed Boyega’s role was reduced in The Last Jedi because Daisy Ridley wanted to stay away from him. While Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is revered, with many fans absolving him of all his treacherous wrongs onscreen, Boyega’s Finn was thought of as a sexual predator who was working under the “nice guy narrative.”
This is part of a long racist tradition of perceiving Black men to be dangerous to white women, stemming from the infamous 1931 case of the Scottsboro Boys, which saw nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women.
This is just a small fraction of the barrage of attacks against Boyega and Finn. It’s been consistently documented by cultural commentators and the actor himself, and he isn’t the only one.
A number of Black actors in sci-fi/fantasy properties have been subject to the same treatment. Candice Patton, who plays Iris West-Allen on The Flash, became the target of racist hate from the moment she was cast in 2014. It’s been six years of non-stop comments and campaigns ranging from backlash against Iris for daring to voice any frustration with the show’s main character to pushback for leading Team Flash for two seasons.
Fans have disparaged Iris’ intelligence and hyper-focused on character traits they’ve praised white characters for having. In real life, the hatred translates to pointed remarks about Patton’s looks, white-washing her photos so that she would look lighter, and claims that she “single-handedly ruined The Flash.”
When Zendaya was cast to play MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming, racist fans started the hashtag “not my MJ,” allegedly to voice their displeasure with the fact that Zendaya was not a redhead. The real issue, of course, was that Zendaya is Black.
Titans’ Anna Diop received a similarly racist pushback after she was cast as Starfire, an alien princess in DC Comics. Fans decried the casting, claiming Diop didn’t look at all like Starfire despite the fact that the character was an alien with orange skin.
When a grassroots campaign pushed for Donald Glover to play Spider-Man, racist fans threw a hissy fit online, claiming Peter Parker was white in the comics and Glover didn’t fit their long-held idea of what the superhero should look like in live action. (No one tell them about Miles Morales.)
There’s no denying the pattern, and while angry fans may claim they’re only trying to protect the versions of a character they grew up with, it’s easy to see the underlying cause. For The New Republic, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote:
“Underneath the complaints that Zendaya isn’t a natural redhead like Mary Jane—a fact which didn’t stop Kirsten Dunst from playing the character three times on-screen—or that [Candice] Patton isn’t good enough to play Iris, is the idea that black women shouldn’t exist in these worlds in the first place.”
It’s not all bad, however. The Expanse fandom is one example where racism is less prevalent. Perhaps it’s because the sci-fi show doesn’t shy away from depicting bigotry and systemic bias onscreen. The Expanse isn’t afraid to touch on these topics, something that other sci-fi/fantasy properties rarely address head-on. That’s a big part of the argument as to why the show’s fandom is less toxic overall.
For most people, fandom is a hobby and escape. Still, it’s become yet another symptom of the systemic racism inherent in our country. When fandoms mistreat Black actors and their characters, whether by blatantly using racial slurs, calling for them to be replaced, or with consistent microaggressions, a clear pattern of abuse emerges. This behavior in fandom plays a role in upholding systemic racism, whether we like it or not.
Don’t get it twisted. It isn’t just white men who are vocally against Black talent. White women and some non-Black people of color are also to blame for upholding these racist notions in sci-fi/fantasy spaces. Either way, the pattern makes for a clear message: Racist fans don’t want Black actors and characters in a space they have claimed as their own. The mentality of ownership is harmful. Why do some fans hate to see Black people included in sci-fi/fantasy properties?
In the wake of the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, it’s clear this toxic fandom is a manifestation of the very issues people are protesting. After speaking out against the mistreatment of Black people and police brutality, John Boyega’s comment section is proof some fans still don’t believe that Black lives matter.
It isn’t enough to decry racism. We have to listen to Black actors, creators, and fans when they bring attention to abhorrent behavior within a fandom. Listen and learn instead of getting defensive.
Toxic, racist fandoms are a cycle. And the cycle must be broken.