Fandom has always been a challenging field to navigate.
When you take a large group of people who are passionate about something, mix in contradictory opinions, disappointment, and the internet’s ability to instantly connect fans with content creators, actors, and other creatives, it’s easy for fandom to turn toxic. But what happens when fandom takes their disappointment and their passion and turns it into something positive?
The Star Wars fandom has never been immune to toxicity. Infamous fans — or rather haters — are known for harassing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace performers Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd. Despite the critical success of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, actress Kelly Marie Tran deleted Instagram due to fandom backlash, following Daisy Ridley’s 2016 social media departure.
In 2018, an academic report revealed that haters had been weaponized by Russian trolls to sow seeds of discord in the wake of The Last Jedi, leading a strategic campaign against director Rian Johnson, members of the cast, and vocal fans on social media. Data analyst, Katie McCort, identified a systematic pattern of targeted harassment against female Star Wars fans by analyzing thousands of tweets between 2017 and 2019.
It would be easy to counter hate with hate, but fans have actively fought against perpetuating a toxic narrative within the Star Wars fandom. Following the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, disappointed fans of Adam Driver’s character Ben Solo banded together to show their gratitude by raising funds for Driver’s non-profit Arts in the Armed Forces.
In one month, over four thousand fans contributed to the fundraiser, raising a total of $90,000 (after processing fees, $86,413 was donated to AITAF). This is the sort of positivity that should be uplifted and celebrated in fandom space. While people from all walks of life contributed to the fundraiser, the majority of the fans were members of the Ben Solo fandom and the overlapping Reylo fandom (those who ship the characters Ben Solo and Rey).
When Star Wars author Charles Soule announced on April 15th that he would be hosting a benefit auction for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, Star Wars fans were quick to jump at the opportunity to lend their support to comic shops and indie bookstores. For the first auction item, Soule agreed to appear on a Star Wars podcast for an in-depth discussion.
The second auction item was a signed copy of Soule’s wildly successful Rise of Kylo Ren comic, as well as a 500-word non-canon and unofficial story about Ben Solo or Kylo Ren with art by Will Sliney. Brad Whipple started the first GoFundMe fundraiser to help “fans around the Star Wars community who want to contribute” and “guarantee Ben Solo’s newest story is told to all fans!”.
Yet again, the draw of Ben Solo inspired fans to come together, already raising over $13,000 between the two auctions in just four days. Brad Norris organized the second GoFundMe fundraiser to bid for Soule to appear on the What The Force podcast.
I spoke with a few of the fans at the forefront of the campaign to get a closer look at their involvement, their love for Ben Solo, and the impact of positivity in fandom.
Brad Whipple is the host of Friends of the Force Podcast and the driving force behind the GoFundMe fundraiser to bid on the unofficial short story. Whipple explained that “the majority of people, especially during COVID-19, can’t afford to donate $700+ individually on a comic book. But when we’re talking about a $5 donation? That’s a lot more realistic.” He was shocked by how quickly the fundraiser grew: within 45 minutes, they had raised over $1,000.
“A lot of people are saying [that] this is the happiest they’ve felt in months because we’re getting a new Ben Solo story in addition to helping charity.” The draw of Ben Solo has certainly helped the success of this campaign, as well as past efforts. “I think [it] shows that movements like #SaveBenSolo do ultimately have a positive impact.” Whipple believes that a character like Ben Solo “gives us all hope that even in the worst circumstances, we can come out on top, and I think that’s why he resonates with so many fans.”
Whipple noted that the money that has been raised by the campaign would help to change someone’s life and help businesses stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis. “At the end of the day, I think everyone will be thankful for whatever new story that we get because it will help us keep the love for Ben Solo alive, give us hope that maybe we haven’t seen the last of him, and enable us to be a positive force for change in our communities during one of the most pressing circumstances of our lifetime.”
Brad Norris started his GoFundMe page after seeing Brad Whipple’s. He was drawn to the fundraising efforts, “As a person who worked in an independent bookstore in Chicago all through college, and who loves comics, and my local comic shops, it is a cause I can get behind in a heartbeat.”
Once he saw that Soule was auctioning off an appearance on a podcast, he knew exactly which podcast he wanted to have that honor. As a Patreon supporter of Marie-Claire Gould’s podcast What the Force, he reached out to her to see if she would be comfortable with the opportunity before he set up the GoFundMe.
Norris believed that the campaign was one that all Star Wars fans could get behind. “However,” He was careful to point out, “within that fandom, it’s Reylos who have moved monetary mountains to support causes like this that center around Ben Solo.” A sentiment that the author of this article agrees with. Consistently over the years, Reylos and Ben Solo fans have turned frustration into donations, making a positive impact in the world.
“Charles Soule knocked it out of the park with his The Rise of Kylo Ren comic series, and the fandom was so hungry for more Ben Solo content after The Rise of Skywalker.” Norris continued, “I don’t think there’s another single character in current fiction that has united as many people around them as fervently and continuously as Ben Solo. And it’s great to see that love translate into real-world charity and assistance for people in need.”
Marie-Claire Gould was overwhelmed by the opportunity to interview Charles Soule when Norris reached out to her. Before the GoFundMe began, both he and another fan and friend of the podcast had already committed to a $300 bid. After Soule upped the ante by offering to answer an ‘I shouldn’t answer the question’ if the fundraiser reached $1500, and additional questions for each additional $500s, she has been looking for ways to drum up interest on social media.
“There is an [misperception] on who consumes Star Wars media now. The base of fans interested in feminine gaze has grown over the last five years to the point of pushing comics to be sold out. Ben Solo fans are a huge factor in that, as a character, he is identifiable to many people who consume feminine gaze media, and [he] drives a desire to have more content and stories about him.”
While Ben Solo is certainly a draw for the short-story auction, Gould also praises Soule as “a trusted creator of Star Wars content for a long time, his handling of Poe, Anakin & Obi-Wan, Vader and the Fall of Ben Solo all required a careful touch. He is a thoughtful, thematic, and symbolically driven creator that many in especially the female side of the fandom were drawn to even before he took on Ben Solo.”
Gould tempers her enthusiasm, wary of the double-edged sword of positivity. “[When] anything positive happens in fandom [it] tends to come with backlash driven from the global village wanting to judge what others enjoy in fiction. I think people should focus on the positive things we produce and ignore the negative. As George Lucas said, “Seek Joy,” and you will know you are on the right path.”
Evie Giacomo used to work in comics, she was inspired by everyone's enthusiasm for Soule’s campaign and found herself quickly outbid. “The fact that everyone wanted to pool their money together so we can raise more money together than any one person alone and share Soule’s story widely meant a lot.”
She also participated in the AITAF campaign, “I especially love how Joonas Suotamo threw his energy behind the campaign, too.” Referencing the Chewbacca actor’s promise to participate in the viral #BenSoloChallenge if fans got the fundraiser to $75,000. Vee noted that this is how the Ben Solo and Reylo community responds, “We turn those negative feelings into something positive.
We really latched onto the AITAF campaign and poured a ton of energy and money into it.” She also pointed out that the fandom “decided to channel our misgivings with Episode IX into campaigns thanking Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran for their performances and role in shaping Star Wars.” Her favorite fundraising campaign, however, was the Reylo Charity Anthology, which raised $25,000 between two volumes for non-profits like RAICES, Save the Children, and many others.
For those who donate to the campaigns, Giacomo decided that she wanted to find another way to give back and incentivize supporters. “For the past few weeks, I’ve been making little needle-felted blue butterflies inspired by [Star Wars Roll Out: Ben Solo and the Bug Hunters Chapter 2]. For anyone who donates to the campaigns and shares a screencap confirmation with Giacomo, she is raffling off a handmade felted blue butterfly.
With two days left in the campaign, Whipple wanted to “thank everyone who donated to this cause. It has been such a bright spot for many during these tough times we’re living in, and I think this will all be something we can look back on with our Star Wars family and remember the positive impact we made.”
Unfortunately, toxicity tends to garner more attention and page clicks across pop-culture news. It’s important to remember that there is an incredible fanbase that is dedicated to spreading positivity and helping where they can. It is often easy to listen to the loudest, angriest, and most hateful voices — but there are forces of good within the Star Wars fandom that are giving their time, money, and creative efforts to make a change wherever they can.
The Ben Solo and Reylo fandom are just one part of the Star Wars fandom, but they deserve a round of applause for everything they have done. While the character of Ben Solo may have met an untimely demise in The Rise of Skywalker, fans keep the legacy alive through charitable acts of goodwill.
Charles Soule’s auction ends on April 20th. At the time of this article’s publication, fans have raised nearly $15,000.