A Christian Response to Toxic Geek Culture

If there is one emotion people would use to describe geeks, it would likely be “passionate.” We are often the first ones to speak up when someone mentions a piece of pop culture we love. We’re the ones who will try to wedge ourselves into conversations involving the movies, TV shows, videogames, and books we hold dear. 

The passion of geeks often results in great conversation, but it can also easily result in intense debate and animosity. “Nerd wars” are nothing new, as anyone who has been to a comic book store or online fan forum can testify. However, social media has made these debates more public and allowed more voices to come to the forefront. Unfortunately, time and again, these debates result in the kinds of harassment and threats normally associated with our current political discourse. With so much toxicity surrounding all things geeky, I find it necessary to address recent examples of this toxicity and discuss what we as followers of Christ should do in response.

The War Over Star Wars

Star Wars was the first major film franchise I got sucked into as a kid. As such, I have become all-too-familiar with how hateful and toxic certain segments of the fanbase can be. The most prominent recent example of this can be seen in the fan response to The Last Jedi. It is no secret this movie in particular is incredibly divisive among Star Wars fans; so much so that the mere mention of the movie tends to throw any online discussion into immediate chaos. When the movie was released, the backlash was swift and aggressive. The movie was review-bombed by fans on Rotten Tomatoes, petitions were made to have the movie “de-canonized” from the current Star Wars mythos, and there were calls to boycott all future Star Wars films produced by Disney. 

What caught the mainstream media’s attention was how much of the criticism of the movie took on a nasty racist and misogynistic tone. This was particularly evident in the backlash against the actress Kelly Marie Tran who played the character of Rose Tico. It should be noted that her role in the film makes Tran the first non-white woman to be a leading character in a Star Wars movie. The bullying and hatred she received online was so vitriolic that she eventually deleted all her social media accounts. The actress herself also admitted in a New York Times op-ed that the backlash sent her into a dark downward spiral of depression that reminded her of racial discrimination she had received as a child.

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Sadly, Kelly Marie Tran is not the only Star Wars actor to receive this level of hatred on a personal level. Those who saw the Star Wars prequel trilogy likely recall the incredible backlash to those films and the hatred the actors in them received. Jake Lloyd was so relentlessly mocked as a child for his role as Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace that he had to change schools and, at one point, quit acting entirely. Likewise, Ahmed Best opened up about the depression he experienced after playing the much-maligned character of Jar Jar Binks. In an emotional video (which you can wach below), Best openly admitted his depression nearly drove him to commit suicide. 

I want to be clear that by no means does criticizing a movie or disliking a particular character make someone a racist or a misogynist. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike the movies listed above, such as The Last Jedi‘s clunky pacing and The Phantom Menace‘s juvenile humor. Unfortunately, as often happens with social media, the loudest voices get the most attention and the most vocal critics of The Last Jedi were the ones who took it upon themselves to bully those involved with its production. George Lucas, JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Kathleen Kennedy have all received numerous death threats; all because they made movies about space wizards that some people didn’t like. 

Elizabeth Olson

One of the latest victims of toxic geek culture has been Elizabeth Olsen who is most known for her role as Wanda Maximoff, also known as Scarlet Witch, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Star Wars fans often get a bad reputation, but they are not the only fandom that has a deeply toxic sector. After the tragic passing of Chadwick Bosman earlier this year, many of the actors in the MCU posted statements on social media expressing sorrow at his passing. As the posts came rolling in, many fans noticed Olson had not made any post addressing the death of Boseman. This started a wave of hatred from people online, claiming Olson not making a post about Boseman’s death was insulting his legacy.

Some have taken it a step farther, making fun of Olson’s appearance in some of her photos, accusing her of being a racist, and calling for her to be fired by Marvel Studios. However, people online have pointed out that Olson doesn’t post very frequently on social media in general. I cannot understate the fact that all of this controversy came about because Olson did not make a post about the recent death of an actor. If someone close to you passes away, who’s to say you have to make a public post about it? Maybe your way of handling grief needs to be private and not for millions of people around the world to see. Instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt, however, throngs of people on social media chose to see her silence as a deliberate act of disrespect.

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All of this backlash resulted in Olson deleting her Instagram account, which was the only known social media account she had. In recent months, Olson has seemed to make somewhat of a comeback in her reputation online due to the popularity of WandaVision.  However, while the online community is currently talking about her possibly getting an Emmy for her work on WandaVision, Olson has yet to reappear on social media.

I chose these examples because they involve franchises I am invested in and love to talk about. There are plenty of other examples I could include of artists and actors being harassed by passionate fans, and it would definitely take up the whole article. With all of these stories of artists and actors being harassed and threatened due to toxic geek culture, how do we as followers of Christ handle this? How do we participate in discussions of pop culture in such a way that gives glory to God? Here are a few guiding principles I have found to be helpful:

Know that Words Have Lasting Consequences

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“Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way.” (James 3:7-10 CSB)

In the heat of the moment, we often think our words will only have a temporary impact. We may only intend for them to sting for a moment, and then fade away. However, regardless of our intentions, words spoken in hatred and anger can have long-lasting emotional and psychological effects on a person. I speak from experience when I say hateful words spoken years in the past can still hurt a person in the present. With this in mind, we must always think before we speak and recognize that what we say can have unintended consequences. Remember there is at least one person behind every profile picture.

Don’t Get in the Middle of Every Argument

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“A person who is passing by and meddles in a quarrel that’s not his
is like one who grabs a dog by the ears.” (Proverbs 26:17)

My Old Testament professor referred to this as the “anti-Twitter verse” and it is easy to see why. Social media lends itself to public, often aggressive, discourse that tends to exceed a simple friendly debate. Contrary to popular belief, not every issue needs every person’s input at any given time. Too often, we as believers fall victim to the mentality that if we don’t say anything, it means we are letting the other side win. The issue with this mentality is it can easily lead us to the idea that we must win every debate at all costs. When we do this, the cost can be the loss of respect from one’s peers or even the loss of friendships. As those called to be representatives of Christ, we can’t afford to sully His image in front of the world. It may be cliché, but there is great wisdom in the adage “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” 

Be Open to Other Opinions

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“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

Terms such as “fake” or “real” fans should not be present in our discourse. Especially when it comes to long-running franchises like Star Wars or the MCU, there are going to be several generations of fans who each have their own ideas about what makes their favorite franchises special. This is a good thing, as media franchises can often bring together different people from many different walks of life. We should celebrate the fact diverse groups of people can all be united by their love for a particular piece of media. Even if we have different opinions about what makes our entertainment good, we should still be able to listen to where each person is coming from. At the end of the day, if we cannot be civil in discussions about entertainment, how can we expect to maintain civility when discussing real-world issues?

Above All, Show Love

Reaching out | Im disappointed with the levels and contrast … | Flickr

“A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” (Matthew 13:34-35)

Time and time again, Scripture makes it clear that the mark of a Christian should be love. This love should extend both to our brothers and sisters in Christ as well as to those who have not believed in Him. What we say, even in discussions over trivial matters, can sway others towards or away from Christ. Before we say or post anything, we should ask ourselves, “is this coming from a place of love?” If the answer is “no,” then it would probably be best to hold our tongue. 

Conclusion

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We as humans are fallen, sinful creatures; because of this, we will always struggle with how we treat others in our discourse. Even in matters as trivial as pop culture and entertainment, what we say and do can have a profound effect on people either for good or evil. Therefore, let us always strive to conform our words to the image of Christ and make sure our words are honoring Him. There are enough controversial and heart-breaking issues in the world without dragging our beloved pop-culture franchises into the gutter. I hope whenever you find yourself tempted to stir the pot online or in person, you will always come back to this verse:

“And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

Stay geeky and holy! 🙂

Thomas White

Thomas White is a graduate of New Mexico State University and an enthusiast for all things geeky. His favorite movie is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and his favorite video game is Kingdom Hearts. He is currently working on his master's degree at Southwestern Theological Seminary to pursue full-time ministry work.

1 Comment

  1. Chazz on September 14, 2021 at 4:49 pm

    I really enjoyed this article. It caught my eye and it is my first time checking out your page. I have struggled to avoid falling into debate, especially on science and medical ethics as it pertains to our current global situation as well as the nearly monthly blow up in the tabletop community about inclusion, cancel culture, wokeness, etc. I found the verse from Proverbs quite illuminating as I was not familiar with it. Thanks again…..also, thank you for acknowledging that I can be super annoyed about how Luke’s character from Last Jedi was clearly written by someone who didn’t understand Star Wars, as long as I don’t condemn them for it 🙂

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