Fear and Loathing on the Wookieepedia

Update - Normally I wouldn’t do this, but it’s dawning on me that my attempt to thread a rhetorical needle here might have given certain people the wrong impression, and I’d rather not become part of the problem. Let me just say, with no ambiguity whatsoever: the controversy surrounding Wookieepedia’s “breast” article is a good thing, and it should remain controversial until something changes. Nobody who is angry about the article is wrong for feeling that way, and I support those people making their voices heard in whatever fashion they deem appropriate. – Mike

So, there was a bit of a kerfuffle last week. Wookieepedia‘s April Fools prank involved featuring its article on breasts on the front page, including the officially-licensed image above (by Evan Wilson, from the book Star Wars Visions) and a crudely-rewritten intro paragraph including all manner of juvenile language. In addition to taking attention away from their main joke (the introduction of a paid “Wookieepedia Pro” service, which was really kind of genius) the breast debacle ended up ripping the scab clean off of one of the site’s most lengthy and entrenched controversies—whether the article should have existed in the first place.

And I must confess, I’m not really here to talk about the controversy. I put that picture up at the top there for two reasons: one, because a certain segment of the controversy, more historically than currently, I suspect, has come from not from the article but from the nudity; from the notion that an exposed breast is harmful and obscene and has no business on a Star Wars site—and this seemed like the most efficient way to weed those people out. If the picture makes you uncomfortable, by all means, click away—there’s nothing for you here.

The other reason I began this way is because I want to explain what I mean when I say that, where Wookieepedia (henceforth “the wook”) is concerned, I can’t really say that I give a crap.

Just for the record, this is literally <i>the next page</i> of Star Wars Visions after the Aayla pic.

And just for the record, this is on literally the next page of Visions after the Aayla pic.

When the wook first started up, I was still writing for TheForce.Net. Despite a little tension early on with the TFN-hosted Completely Unofficial Star Wars Encyclopedia, run single-handedly by the herculean Bob Vitas, wikis seemed like the Wave of the Future back in those hale days of 2005, and I was anxious to sign up my own self. The founders, Chad and Steven, even joined me for an EU Roundtable in early 2006—clearly I was on board.

My first big project for the wook was the article for Gorm the Dissolver. He was an interesting character with only a few scattered appearances, so it didn’t seem like a huge task to piece together every stray bit of data and assemble them into a coherent and comprehensive article. It turned out pretty well, and the fact that the version I wrote is still pretty much intact today is testament to that, I would say. So a little while later, I turned my attention to a larger task: Booster Terrik.

I spent roughly a month combing through and rereading all of his appearances, primarily in the X-Wing series and the Hand of Thrawn duology, assembling stray bits of data from reference books, and piecing them together into a narrative that turned out to be roughly seven thousand words—to this day, the longest single piece I’ve ever written.

On the whole, my Booster article has remained largely unscathed as well over the years, but this time the response proved to be much more complicated. Initial reactions from the wook user base were mostly positive, but I started getting into debates with people about specific turns of phrase I’d used—most notably at the very beginning, where I described Booster as “an imposing gundark of a Human”—a subtle reference to a line of Mara Jade’s internal monologue. Actually, let me back up slightly. Here’s the entire introduction as I originally wrote it:

“Booster Terrik, an imposing gundark of a Human from Corellia, was a complicated man; depending on whom you asked, he was either a double-crossing, no-good swindler, or a noble, loyal-to-a-fault family man. What everyone could agree on, though, was that Terrik—the only civilian ever known to own and operate an entire Star Destroyer single-handedly—was anything but subtle.”

What I came to learn over the following, well, year or two, is that either you’re into that kind of thing, or you aren’t. I fought tooth-and-nail on it for a while, but ultimately, the prevailing opinion around the wook seemed to be that it just wasn’t the right tone for what was ostensibly an encyclopedia. I write the way I write—I really had no interest in adopting a passive voice, and beyond that, the rise of the Inquisitorius around this time meant more exacting standards for Featured Articles; an increased focus on citations, “Personality and Traits” sections, and so on, which I wasn’t really interested in either—I had joined the wook because I liked writing narratives, not just compiling data.

Maybe it sounds like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about all this, but what I’ve come to accept with time was that I was wrong. Not wrong in principle, exactly, but wrong in my thinking that “open-source” meant “make it whatever you want it to be”. Wookieepedia isn’t a person, or even a group of people, who can just be convinced to change their minds or be ousted due to external pressure—it’s all of us. And as I’ve suggested here more than once, “all of us” kinda sucks sometimes.

Accepting the mantle of what some might call a “social justice warrior” in Star Wars fandom has taught me a great deal about picking my battles. Some minds really can be changed—with the right tone—but fandom as a hive mind isn’t exactly the most progressive, or even rational, democratic collective. The wook is the wonder that it is precisely because of its ability to tap into, well, the lowest common denominator of fandom. If you’re poking through it and you happen to notice that there’s no article for Drunk Sluissi #5, a bored 14-year-old is just as capable of fixing that as a lawyer or an arts administrator or a professional author.

So when the wook as a collective makes a mistake—and it was a mistake—calling on “it” to change its ways is tantamount to calling on all of society to change. Which is fine, of course, but one should be fully aware when they’re shaking their fist at the sun. That the wook would have an article about breasts is absolutely the result of sexism, but not the sexism of a few guys online; it’s the sexism institutionalized in SF/F culture that leads to breasts being needlessly referenced in novels, and given to alien species even when they’re fish or trees, therefore making them “notable” in Star Wars fiction in a way that penises aren’t. You can be annoyed that the wook as a collective uses that as an excuse to have an article on them, but according to the system they’ve established, they’re right—breasts should have an article. So it’s more productive, I think, to focus on the system.

For my part, these days I treat the wook kinda like an alcoholic treats bourbon. I’d still like to be involved (and I’ll still correct a misspelling here and there), but it brings out a side of me that just doesn’t look good, and certainly isn’t productive in the sense of making the wook better. But if you really want to change things there? You have to go and sign up yourself. Maybe you’d find the average user (and certain of its administrators) distasteful, but if you’re a genuinely productive member, they can’t keep you away. And maybe in six months or a year, enough new blood will have come in that things actually do change. Just remember that you can’t just change the wook, you have to change us.

10 comments

  1. dunc says:

    Sorry Coop, but this seems a bit of a cop-out to me. Yes, society needs to change. But making a fuss, speaking up, even at minor crap like this? That’s how we change it. Even if this all comes to nothing for the Wook itself, it’s clearly raised some awareness within fandom.

    (And as one of the fire-starters in this situation, how many times do I have to say I don’t give a flying #$*& about the nudity? My main issue with that artwork is that shouldn’t her nipple be a darker blue, not pink?)

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Well, I agree with all of that—I’m not saying people should stop making a fuss about it, just that it’s not as simple as a regular website where someone could theoretically be fired. It’s only going to change incrementally over a fair amount of time, which I’m pretty sure you’ve said as well, and I don’t want people to have false expectations.

      And yeah, I know you don’t care about the nudity; that wasn’t aimed at you. But they’re out there, believe me.

  2. Brian says:

    Coop, I normally agree with just about everything that gets posted here, but I’ve got to agree with Dunc. This is somewhat of a cop-out. There’s a lot of value in raising a stink when a touchpoint as hugely visible as the Wook screws up as badly as it did last week. We know the Wook most likely isn’t changing wholesale any time soon because it’s buried neck-deep in institutionalized racism and misogyny (which is probably reason to raise MORE of a fuss), but they’ve inadvertently put themselves at the forefront of a conversation that needs to be had.

    Additionally I’m not sure if I agree that nothing will change at the Wook over this now that people have called them out. Small changes that can range from the termination of the article itself to the removal of misbehaving administrators are feasible. They’re not overnight cultural shifts, but it’s something, and the conversation about these somethings probably wouldn’t have happened had people not raised a fuss about it.

    I suppose I’m also not comfortable with the idea of telling readers that the only real way to fix this problem is to throw themselves into the hostile fray and start working at Wookieepedia. What you’ve written here can easily be interpreted as saying that if you don’t do join the Wook community, you’re not really part of the solution, and you don’t really have much grounds to complain. I don’t feel comfortable telling fans who felt targeted and marginalized by the Wook that they have to join the Wook to properly address their grievances.

    I guess I’m unclear what the problem is. Should we temper our criticism of the Wook to temper reader expectations of change? Well, I know my readers are fully aware that this is a slow game and that the institutional problems aren’t going to change overnight. Every time we talk about one of the issues, the unsaid context is that the problem is institutionalized and it’s going to take a lot of work. And if the reader doesn’t understand that, well, there’s also value in discovering for yourself just how ingrained this behavior is in our culture.

  3. Tricia says:

    The problem isn’t the system; it’s specifical individuals who have the time and inclination to abuse the system in order to turn Star Wars into what they want it to be. It was individuals within Wook who created the April Fools Day article, “punished” Club Jade for speaking up, and continue to act like bullies.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      I think the current vote on the breast article demonstrates that it’s a bigger problem than any one, or even handful, of users. That doesn’t mean certain people shouldn’t go, though.

  4. Jay Shah Jay Shah says:

    Yeah, I don’t think the AFD thing is a tempest in a teapot. I think it’s a big deal, and certainly a bigger deal than a dispute over how articles are styled or put together. That really marginalizes the issue. Though I’m sure your correct that some people are upset with the nudity, I don’t think that’s where the majority of the criticism within the fandom is coming from — especially not with the piece resembling the Odalisque tradition and all.

    No, the problem is what the joke revealed about the Wook’s culture and its place within the fandom. I’ve heard a lot of people remark that they found the prank alienating, while others found it juvenile. If the Wook were just one fansite among many, I’d say “alright guys, we’ve said our piece, now let’s move on.” The problem is that the Wook isn’t a simple fansite — it’s assumed a centrality that few fansites get to make. It’s cited by the mass media, it’s cited by TOS, it’s even used by authors and creative types for informational purposes (much as LFL might prefer folks stick to the Holocron).

    So like as not, it’s big in Star wars. And it’s not only something that we have to interact with, but its something that represents us as fans even if we never take part in it. Consequently, I think it’s totally fair to be critical of the Wook and how it operates. That the Wook is a collective endeavor is no answer — so is democracy, and we all know that doesn’t stop politics from generating tons of drama.

    I have my own issues with the Wook, particularly in how “creative” it can get with fanon. But those aren’t a big deal, because those are the kind of issues that I think this article addresses: if I were really that bothered, I’d participate actively in the place. But this issue is different.

    Lastly, to tie it up with my first paragraph, I would be really disappointed if the takeaway from all this was the art. Visions was cool, and the two pieces you put up in this article were among my favorites in the book — it’s really neat to combine traditional high art and Star Wars and it’s particularly difficult to do so without creating kitsch. The artists took a bold risk, and paid off. I hope those risks aren’t a casualty of all this: because the art is not the problem, and I hope that any of the Powers That Be who are following this drama are aware of that.

  5. […] the end of my piece on the Wookieepedia “breast” controversy earlier this week, I made the case that the best way to change the offending article is to change the culture of the […]

  6. […] several of us had some objections with Mike Cooper’s orignal follow-up on the piece, he does have some suggestions today on ways to ‘contribute’ to […]

  7. R.B. Thaler says:

    Female breasts are a… let’s say “problematic” body part because they have developed a very particular role in human mating habits (a role that, thankfully, they assumed from the buttocks, which get all our male mammalian cousins so worked up). But is it sexist to accept that very simple fact? I don’t believe it is. Is it sexist to make booby jokes on Wookieepedia? No. It’s tasteless, which is most decidedly not a synonym for “sexist”.

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