Recently some guy tweeted “Seeing the Star Wars movies does not make you a Star Wars fan. Actual Star Wars fans have done some of the following…” This is a great opportunity for me to talk about a particular kind of category fight: coercion.
Over the past several years I’ve written about some things people try to do with categories: watchdogging, gatekeeping, pedantry, eclipsing and splitting. Coercion is similar to gatekeeping, which is where someone highlights category boundaries with the goal of preventing free riders from accessing benefits that they are not entitled to: the example I gave was of Dr. Nerdlove defending the category of “socially awkward men” from incursion by genuinely abusive men. He argues that these abusive men do not deserve the accommodation that is sometimes extended to men who are simply socially awkward.
Coercion is different from gatekeeping in that the person making the accusation is shifting the category boundaries. Ed Powell knows quite well that most people’s definition of “Star Wars fan” includes people who have not done any of the six things he lists. So why is he insisting that “Actual Star Wars fans” have all done some of those things? Because he wants to control the behavior of people who care about whether they are considered Star Wars fans.
Why would someone care about being considered a Star Wars fan? Because fandom is often a communal affair. Fans go to movies and conventions together, and bond over their shared appreciation for Star wars. As Powell says, they may participate in discussion groups. There’s a satisfaction people get in talking about Wookiees or midichlorians with people who share background knowledge and don’t have to ask what a protocol droid is.
I’ve also heard that some people get a sense of belonging from participating in these groups. They may have been teased – and rejected from other groups – for being one of the few Star Wars fans in their high school, especially in the seventies and eighties. There’s a satisfaction and relief in finally finding a group that you share so much with.
Of course, these groups are vulnerable to the dark side. They contain people, and people aren’t necessarily nice just because they’ve been treated badly by other people. Sometimes not even if they’re Star Wars fans. Sometimes people discover they can wield power within a group like that, and they’re not always interested in using that power for good.
One way to wield power is to be able to give people something they want – or to deny it to them. And if people want the sense of belonging to a group, or the enjoyment of participating in group activities, it’s a source of power to be able to control who belongs to the group – and who doesn’t. Some groups are arbitrary: in theory, the only person who gets to decide who belongs to “Brenda’s friends” is Brenda, and the only person who gets to decide who’s invited to Kevin’s party is Kevin.
Other groups are based on categories, like these Meetup groups that are hosting events tomorrow: the New York Haskell Users Group, Black Baby Boomers Just Want to have Fun, or First Time Upper West Side Moms. Or like Star Wars fans. These groups are much less arbitrary: if a woman lives on the Upper West Side with her only child, it’s going to be hard to throw her out.
It’s hard to exclude people from a category-based group, but not impossible. What if our First Time Upper West Side Mom is trans, or a stepmother? Or if she’s a stepmother and a first-time biological mother? Or if she lives on 107th Street? Or if her kid is in college? Because categories are fuzzy, the power to draw category boundaries can be the power to exclude people from group membership. If the group leader doesn’t like our hypothetical mom, all she has to do is draw the boundary of the Upper West Side at 106th Street. Sorry honey, there is no First Time Morningside Heights Moms? Oh gee, what a shame.
The power to exclude doesn’t even need to be exercised. It doesn’t even need to have any direct force to have a chilling effect. Even if the head of your local Star Wars fan club totally owns Ed Powell on Twitter, you still may be wondering if people at the next regional convention are going to look at you funny because you haven’t read Dark Force Rising.
But if you’re not actually going to use this power to exclude people, what do you use it for? This is where the coercion comes in. You can use the threat of exclusion to bully people into doing things. And the easiest way to do that is simply to make doing those things the criteria for inclusion.
So here’s what I think happened: Ed Powell got tired of going to conferences and not having anyone to talk about novelizations and animated series with. All they wanted to talk about was the movies (I can’t imagine why!). So how does Powell get people to read these books? He changes the criteria for what counts as an Actual Star Wars fan. Now they have to read them, or watch the series, if they want to be Actual Star Wars fans.
Now as far as I can tell, Ed Powell is just some guy on Twitter, and has no authority to exclude anyone from any fan club. And he seems to be getting owned by everyone. I doubt that his shaming will have an effect on the general population of Star Wars fans. It may serve as advertising to encourage people who have read these books and watched the animated series to talk with him about them. If it doesn’t turn them off too.