CHICAGO — There's a T-shirt selling here at Star Wars Celebration at McCormick Place with something across the chest that you probably assumed was self-evident for the past 42 years. The shirt says: "Star Wars is For Everyone." And with an estimated 35,000 fans arriving daily to this biennial Lucasfilm-orchestrated gathering of the "Star Wars" tribes -- the fans, the filmmakers, the podcasters, droids, Siths, Rebels -- it feels at times like everyone and their Aunt Beru is here, packing the convention hall for five days of panels, purchasing and parties.
But everyone in this galaxy hasn't always felt so welcome.
On Friday afternoon, Joanna Wallace of Minneapolis handed out business cards to passersby here that read: "Looking for a positive fangirl group? Join us ..." Alongside her message, a mashup of the Rebel and Empire insignias spliced with the gender symbol for female. Four years ago, angry at the dismissiveness that she and other women had felt from more male-centric "Star Wars" clubs, she decided to start the Galactic Fempire.
"Actually, I rage-started it," she said. "Whenever I posted anything online about women (on the websites of male-based groups), it'd get pulled down or greeted with awful fanboy (expletive). Which is a common theme among members of the Galactic Fempire: Guys who act like you're not supposed to be in their space. I'd think, what do I have to prove to you? Or I slunk back to my corner. Now I'm done with that. 'Star Wars' is the most popular thing in the world, and only for white dudes? Nope -- not anymore."
Today membership in the Galactic Fempire is about 2,100. Before coming to Celebration, Wallace made Fempire pins and patches; before she arrived, she had sold almost 400.
There's a dusty old stereotype about "Star Wars" fans that says the fandom is white, sweaty, out of shape, awkward and male. And to paraphrase Luke Skywalker, it's become so much more. Not unlike society itself, there's a new commitment and emphasis among the Sorta-United States of Star Wars to create a fandom that looks more like the universe. At panels, podcasts and booths throughout McCormick this weekend, Celebration has seen a consistent focus on representation in a galaxy far, far away. Saturday, the 7,000-seat Wintrust Arena held an event for women in "Star Wars"; Friday, at the eagerly awaited preview of the next "Star Wars" film, the only new (human) character introduced was Jannah, played by Naomi Ackie, a black woman; and Sunday, one of the most anticipated panels will be about social activism in the fandom.
Some of this is partly a reminder that "Star Wars," the most successful movie franchise in history, has remained thoughtful enough to offer a kind of snapshot of its times; after decades of criticism that the galaxy created by George Lucas was overwhelmingly white and male, the past decade of "Star Wars" films have been headlined primarily by powerful women, featuring black, Latino and Asian leading characters among the casts.
But then, this emphasis on diversity, at least at Celebration, at least among the fandom, also arrives after a couple of years of discord within that fandom, marked by the online trolling and harassment of female fans and a harsh, all-is-wrong reaction to the divisive 2017 chapter of the saga, "The Last Jedi." At Friday's preview, Kelly Marie Tran, the Vietnamese-American actress introduced in that film (then hounded off social media by often racist, sexist badgering within the fandom), received a warm standing ovation.
Many fans say the ugliness -- the condescension, the gatekeeping, the accusations of diverse casting as virtue signaling -- has been useful, even rallying.
On Thursday, less than an hour after Celebration opened, the booth for Pride Squadron, an LGBTQ "Star Wars" club that formed in Washington state in 2017, was busy, verging on mobbed. Spike Springe of Lawrence, Kansas, stood behind the table, passing out pins (designed by Chicago artist Katie Cook) of "Star Wars" characters regularly accepted as part of the LGBTQ community. Lando Calrissian, for instance, played originally by Billy Dee Williams. is said to be pansexual (that includes droids). The pin showed him winking, along with his presumed pronouns, he and him.
A woman walked up to the booth with a patch reading "Ask Me About My Feminist Fan Agenda" and took a pin. A man walked up and asked if he could have some information on the group for his daughter. He said his daughter was in high school in San Francisco "and she feels unclear on some things, but something like this" -- he nodded at a Pride Squadron banner -- "is awesome and wonderful, whether my daughter came out or not."
When he left Springe said, "Some people avoid us, the ones who are not queer positive, or just not comfortable identifying with us. But there's been no harassment, but then if anyone did ..." He reached for his phone and called up the Celebration app, which includes a function installed by Lucasfilm to immediately report any harassment.
Asking around Celebration if anyone feared the online infighting would manifest at McCormick, most said no -- the only angst they had seen was caused by the long lines.
Annalise Ophelian, a San Francisco filmmaker here working on a documentary about women in the fandom, said, "Conventions are really expensive and time consuming and trolling women online is none of those things. Besides, nerds can be famously polite."
She moved through the hall with her camera at her hip, looking for women to share fandom stories, offering them a button in return that read: "Girls Run the Galaxy."
Late on Friday, one of the clubs that Ophelian planned to shoot, Asians in Space, were gathered on a staircase in the south building of McCormick Place. The group, founded a year ago by Madeline Anderson, a Minnesota electrical technician of Irish-Korean descent, has 200 members around the country; about 20 of them made it for their group photo. They were dressed as Stormtroopers, Roses (Tran's character), Holdos and Fetts.
"OK, and now," the photographer said, "buckets off" -- meaning, please take off your helmets.
"What," someone laughed, "you need proof we're Asian?"
Later, Anderson said she was encouraged by her girlfriend to create a "Star Wars" club focused on Asian characters. But she worried if she tried to list them all, it would make a short list; instead, she came up with about two dozen. At Celebration, she's dressing each day as a different Asian character. "The truth is, there may be a stereotype about what a fan looks like, but that's never really been correct."
Watching them were a pair of Lando Calrissians.
Gabrielle Irvin of Atlanta, wearing a yellow satin shirt and blue cape, said that, being a black woman, she cried the first time she saw the 2015 installment "The Force Awakens." "A woman (Rey) was the hero, the other hero (Finn) was a black man. It confirmed I belonged in this world." The Lando beside her, Trevor Fitzpatrick of Chicago, agreed: "Finn was important to me. He wasn't a paragon. He wasn't Lando, slickest dude in the universe. He was black, whiny -- an ordinary guy. It was important for me to see that."
If you're wondering if these people were paid by Lucasfilm to say nice things about large entertainment company, the answer is no.
Speak to enough fans about representation in "Star Wars" and you hear constantly that Lucasfilm, a company owned by Disney with women at the top of its leadership, has their backs, and in more than spirit. Among the evidence they give are LGBTQ characters in the video games and comic books, including Admiral Holdo, a pink-haired Resistance fighter played by Laura Dern. Last year, Swara Salih, a Kurdish-American data analyst from Washington, D.C., started the online movement #SWRepMatters to promote characters of marginalized backgrounds; employees from Lucasfilm have tweeted out his hashtag.
"We want to see ourselves in 'Star Wars,'" he said. "But with a franchise this big as a catalyst, you can create a cascading effect for marginalized people outside a fandom."
You can also create opportunity.
Lynette Riddler and her friend Kathryn Mills, both from the Bay Area and in their 50s, were dressed as Han Solos, walking the convention with stuffed Chewbaccas. Asked if they had always felt comfortable in this fandom, Riddler said: "I never felt marginalized. But I never felt there was much in this fandom for me -- not until Her Universe."
Started a decade ago by Ashley Eckstein, a voice actor for animated "Clone Wars" series, Her Universe designs casual "Star Wars"-inspired clothing that doesn't entirely scream nerd. The clothes have been so popular Hot Topic purchased the company two years ago; on Friday, the wait to get a photograph with Eckstein was three hours long.
"I knew so little about fashion," she said during a brief break. "I simply thought of this as a means to change the culture (of the fandom). And so it was a hard sell at first. It wasn't about the business, it was about contributing to an accepting environment for women. 'Star Wars' is about a chance of hope, and you can't exactly put a gender on that."
Now if she could make Stormtrooper armor.
Charlotte Hartsock of Peoria never gets to play a Stormtrooper. She's married to a Stormtrooper named Brad, the second in command of the Midwest Garrison of the 501st Legion, a kind of 21st century Lions Club service group with 14,000 members globally. They march in breast cancer awareness events and they visit children's hospitals. They're mostly Stormtroopers. But Charlotte, at 4-foot, 11-inches tall, cosplays as a Jawa, one of the shrouded elfin scavengers on Tatooine. Still, when she first got involved with the 501st, "it was this guy thing, but what's happening now in society is what's happening with the 501st, too."
The ranks have grown more female, more diverse.
And so, somewhat driven to counter the ugly vibes of the past couple of years in the fandom, the 501st joined with six other "Star Wars" clubs -- groups that traditionally stay mostly to themselves -- and rented the Museum of Science and Industry. They threw a party Thursday night, and more than 2,500 attended. The theme was "One goal, one galaxy." The male-female ratio, to eyeball it, looked 50-50.
They wore Darth Vader-pattern tuxes, Stormtrooper helmets with white suits and evening gowns with jeweled veils. Horns sprouted from foreheads. Kylos danced with Reys, Darths danced with Kylos. They were white, but also black, also green and blue, and when the DJ dropped a beat, they leapt and tentacles flopped. The only thing they shared was "Star Wars." And an inability to dance in armor.
1,500 Stormtroopers gather for 'Star Wars' 'family' photo
OK, three, two, one -- smile?! Early Sunday morning the galaxy's scum and villainy gathered at McCormick Place for their family photo at Star Wars Celebration. These were mostly members of the 501st Legion -- "Vader's Fist" -- an international service club and costuming group with 14,000 members. Roughly 1,500 showed up for the photo -- a little less than expected. You would think that spring snow and sleepy Sunday mornings wouldn't conflict with Empirical tenacity, but there you go. Stormtroopers stood alongside Snowtroopers, Clone Troopers, Mudtroopers, Bike Scouts, Kylos, Siths, Greedos, Mauls, Fetts, Tuskans and Darths. Jawas were up front. No one smiled.
Star Wars Celebration ends Monday.