It is not inherently sexist to dislike Disney’s Star Wars films. There have been many thoughtful, intelligent criticisms of these movies. That being said, sexism played a major role in the backlash against these movies, particularly The Last Jedi. A vocal minority has published a great many articles and videos condemning The Last Jedi as feminist, politically-correct (“PC”) propaganda. Tweets about female characters contained hate speech, which drove actor Kelly Marie Tran (who plays Rose Tico in the sequel trilogy) from social media; she has since responded to this online abuse in a New York Times op-ed. And the actor who plays Rey, Daisy Ridley, responded to criticism of Rey’s competence—the “Mary Sue” critique—by calling the term sexist. The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and Mark Hamill (who plays Luke Skywalker) both spoke out against the sexist rhetoric used to criticize the Disney movies.
I am not here to litigate the gender politics in the Star Wars movies. My focus in this part is on the empirical, psychological relationship between favorability toward Star Wars films and sexist attitudes. I also look at the closely related concepts of “political correctness” and political identification. I focus on the survey’s questions of hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, PC beliefs, and political identification. I briefly discussed these in Part 1.
These concepts are all related to one another. If we see a relationship between how conservative someone is and their attitudes toward The Last Jedi, then how do we know it isn’t one of these other variables that is responsible for the relationship? To address this, I ran regression equations with each as a simultaneous predictor of fan-cluster membership, movie favorability, and character favorability. In these equations, I will focus only on variables that were significant predictors (p < .01).
I’ll start by looking at how fan clusters (from Part 2) differ on these items. Then I’ll turn to the relationships between these items and favorability toward Star Wars films and characters.
In Part 2, I found three major types of Star Wars fans: Prequel Skeptics, who love the saga but rate the prequels lower than the rest; Saga Lovers, who rate everything highly; and TLJ Disowners, who rate only The Last Jedi very negatively.
I measured hostile sexism with two statements: “Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist,” and “Feminists are making unreasonable demands of men.” I averaged these together to get a general picture of hostile sexism. Benevolent sexism was measured with: “Women should be cherished and protected by men,” and “Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess.” Again, I averaged these together for a general picture of benevolent sexism.
In the plots below, each dot represents a response. The black circle is the mean of the group, and the horizontal lines above and below each dot are the 95% confidence intervals. The confidence interval represents a plausible range of values we can expect the mean to truly be.
TLJ Disowners reported more sexism than Saga Lovers, who reported more sexism than Prequel Skeptics. Comparing both means and medians, all comparisons were statistically significant, (p < .01). Those disowning The Last Jedi tended to score higher on sexism, though, as you can see, not everyone who hates The Last Jedi is sexist. This demonstrates some empirical evidence that sexism plays a role in attitudes toward The Last Jedi.
PC Beliefs and Conservatism
I asked respondents how much they agreed with: “Needing to be ‘politically correct’ creates an atmosphere in which the free exchange of ideas is impossible” to measure their “PC” beliefs. Participants also rated themselves on a scale from very liberal to very conservative.
The same pattern of results is found here as above: TLJ Disowners reported more negative attitudes toward being PC and more conservatism than Saga Lovers, who reported more of both than Prequel Skeptics. All comparisons were statistically significant, (p < .01). The biggest differences were between TLJ Disowners and the other two clusters. TLJ Disowners are more likely to believe political correctness is a negative force in society and are less politically liberal. Once again, we see a lot of variance within these groups, showing us that the clusters are not in lockstep with these political beliefs.
I asked respondents how much they liked each Star Wars episode on a ten-point scale. Movies in the same trilogy tended to correlate highly with one another, so I averaged attitudes toward movies of the same trilogy together for these analyses. In this and the next section, I look only at the sexism and PC questions because political identification was no longer a significant predictor after taking these attitudes into account. That is, the relationship between conservatism and movie favorability could have been due to sexism and PC beliefs.
The plots below show sexism and PC scores on the x-axis and favorability toward the trilogy on the y-axis. Each point is someone’s response, and I drew a line showing the relationship between the two attitudes through the points.
Each graph shows the same pattern. There were small, positive relationships between each attitude and favorability for the original and prequel trilogies. The more sexism and anti-PC beliefs one reported, the more they rated the movies favorably. However, we see the opposite relationship for the sequels, especially with hostile sexism and PC beliefs. The more sexism and negative PC beliefs someone reports, the less likely they are to like the sequels.
There has been a lot of cultural discussion about Star Wars and sexism. These data show the empirical relationship: Sexism is correlated with disliking the sequel films, as is thinking political correctness harms society. Again, however, I will point to the variability around these lines; although this relationship exists, not everyone who dislikes the sequels is a sexist or bemoans PC culture.
Three sequel-trilogy characters have faced the brunt of sexist criticism: Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Rey, and Rose Tico. We see the same relationship across all three characters and three attitudes (sexisms and PC beliefs): The more sexism someone reports, the less they like Holdo, Rey, and Rose, and the more one dislikes political correctness, the less favorably they feel toward the characters.
This aligns with what we know about psychological theories of sexism and political correctness. Each of these women defy traditional gender stereotypes. Both types of sexisms are based on traditional gender stereotypes, and violations of these anger those who believe in the stereotypes. Those who believe political correctness harms free exchange of ideas might not see traditional stereotype-defying women as a free artistic expression, but as a decision made solely to appeal to political correctness.
These results also replicate work a colleague of mine and I did after the release of The Force Awakens. We found that hositle sexism was a positive predictor of the typical, “Mary Sue” complaints about Rey, i.e. that she was “too competent” throughout The Force Awakens.
These data shed some insight onto the still-ongoing conversation about sexism, politics, and The Last Jedi. Looking at responses from over five thousand Star Wars fans, it is clear that sexism and disliking political correctness are positively related to disliking Disney’s sequels, though it is also not a one-to-one relationship: Some people defy this trend and dislike the movies while holding progressive attitudes about women.
These data support the excess anecdotal evidence (tweets, comments, articles) that sexism plays a major role in the backlash to Disney’s sequels. While some criticism of the movie is in good faith, these data suggest some of the backlash to the film is likely not. Given their social and political attitudes, some people might have been predisposed to hate it—regardless of the film’s quality—due to main female characters demonstrating skill, bravery, and leadership.