So I’m going to start this with a brief reminder to anyone who might need it. DON’T SEND DEATH THREATS. Its never warranted, its never helpful, its always gross. Don’t do it.
What does that have to do with the article Fandom is Broken? I’ll get back to that, just be patient.
So, having read a couple of critique of Fandom is Broken, the article itself, the follow-up article and the AV Club article it refers to my central critique is that it is a seething mass of false-equivalencies that is gratuitously cruel to underrepresented fans. The representation issues of the article have been addressed much better than I could hope to elsewhere. So I’m going to focus on the sheer incoherence of the article set to anyone who knows even the smallest smidgen about fandom.
- Fandom is a public park, not a gentleman’s club.
Fandom is a community, definitely. People come in and out, and talk to each other they form relationships, they love the things they love communally. That’s really the core of fandom. But fandom is not an organized community. There is no application to join, there is no board of directors controlling community activities or setting rules, and so there’s no way of controlling who comes in, or what they do when they get here.
And that brings me back to my first paragraph. That is everything I can possibly do to prevent people in fandom from making death threats. I have literally exhausted all avenues open to me on that. So its terrible when fans act like jerks, but to say that this is somehow the fault of other fans is flat out ridiculous. We aren’t like major media companies, we don’t have the option of vetoing gratuitously offensive content.
And to say that this is somehow an artefact of twitter is also ridiculous. This, incidentally is an area where the original AV Club article contradicts itself, first noting that fan misbehaviour has occurred for as long as there has been fans, and then turning around and casting it as some new, internet driven issue. Which is annoying.
- What does it mean to be a bad fan?
And while we’re on the topic of fans behaving badly none of these articles really presents a functioning operational definition for what ‘bad’ behaviour means, in the context of fandom. The reference a variety of fan behaviours, but present no real reason as to how they all constitute ‘bad behaviour’. Is complaining about media twists you don’t like bad? Is it only bad if the creator hears about it? What about asking for inclusion? Why is it bad? What sort of feedback do creators actually want and have they spent any time at all thinking about it?
Now obviously, sending threats or harassing media creators is bad behaviour. We don’t need to look into the nature of fandom to tell us that, because its just an unpleasant and unnecessary thing to do regardless.
But then they go on to provide a round of up of totally disparate behaviours, all apparently a sign that ‘the fans are out of control’. Lets move through them.
- Twitter Hashtags are not a form of coercion
The first article (the AV club article) complains at length about the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend tag and loudly declares this an attempt by fans to seize control of the media environment, or some such thing. Now, I would tend to think that actually attempting to seize control of Disney, if that was even possible, would actually be pretty rude. But to claim that a twitter hashtag is doing that is ridiculous. Twitter’s a form of social media, it’s a place for people to talk. And hashtags are a way of keeping people talking about the same thing in the same space. So #GiveElsaAGirlfriend is essentially, a conversation. Just that. Just people talking. People talking can’t force Disney to do anything, no matter what they might want to do, they don’t have the capacity. Fans can talk and they can choose what they spend money on, and then of course, they can transform what they consume. They actually can’t make creators do things. They literally can’t. Worrying about media control by out of control fans is like worrying about media control by alien mind rays.
Twitter is not really my thing, so I might be overstepping a bit with this next statement, but to say that the specificity of the hashtag somehow separates it meaningfully from more general lobbying for inclusive media doesn’t really hold much water with me. Hashtags work by punchiness, an attention grabbing twitter hashtag will get more attention. And focusing single concrete goal instead of a big general one (getting Elsa a girlfriend vs making movies in general generally more inclusive) is just doing effective activism, so I don’t totally buy that this really differs from a general request for a more diverse Disney lineup. But even if it does, we’re still just talking.
- Three flavours of fan critique
Of course, while all fans are, ultimately, not that powerful, not all forms of fan criticism are the same, another point which the writers of these articles seem to profoundly miss. Starting again with the original AV Club article, conflating the complaints about changing the Ghost Buster’s lineup and the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend tag is ridiculous they’re too structurally different. One is regressive, the other progressive.
I don’t mean this in the sense of social justice. That is of course, deeply relevant, but, again, its been covered so well elsewhere my reiterating it wouldn’t add much. Ultimately what people who object to the female Ghost Busters want is to leave something they like the way it is. They are saying (regardless of why they are saying it) ‘I don’t want a new thing, this old one is just fine’. This is very similar to the arguments about the casting of Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which boil down to ‘why do we need to have a black Hermione if I like white Hermione’. I’ve actually written a blog post about me having this experience in Halo fandom it can feel very important, but its meaningless. No matter who they cast going forward doesn’t alter what’s happened before, Emma Watson’s Hermione will still exist when Noma Dumezweni’s hits the stage. We can have every Hermione we like. All Hermione’s are good.
The Elsa hashtag does fundamentally the opposite thing, its looking forward to something that doesn’t exist yet, and saying ‘lets make it better’. We’re still basically debating how Elsa’s story should continue, because it doesn’t exist yet. Its still all headcanons and speculation. And if Elsa gets a girlfriend because of a fan campaign then that’s just as canon as if she gets a boyfriend in spite of one.
And this of course, brings us to Hydra!Cap, a third class of criticism entirely. The articles try to make out that saying ‘please don’t make Cap a member of Hydra’ is essentially the same as ‘please leave cap the way he is and don’t change him’. But that isn’t it at all. They are saying something else entirely. They are saying “THIS IS GROSS”. Not ‘I liked the old one better’, not ‘lets try something a little different next time but ‘this thing, independent of how it was in the past, and how it will be in the future is bad.’
So when you mush these things all together, and try to treat them all the same as ‘fan whining’ or even as ‘fan criticism’ all you’re doing in generating incoherent babble.
- Not all media are created equal
In addition to not seeming to understand the mechanics of how these criticisms work, Mr Faraci’s article shows an odd lack of understanding of how media works. Given that he is, in fact, a professional media critic, I am a touch perturbed. Not all media is criticised the same way, because its not all the same. I’ve been avoiding talking too much about the Hydra!Cap thing, since I’m neither a comics fan nor Jewish. But before I return to shut up and listen-ville on the topic, Mr Faraci hastily dismisses the history of Captain America as relevant to fan’s anger about Hydra!Cap. Why would it matter, he asks, that he was written by two Jewish writers, and introduced punching out Hitler?
I am baffled by this. I genuinely fail to understand how you could not see that connection. Not all media has the same impact. Some stories never gain much traction. Some are popular briefly, then fade. Some are crucially important to just a few people, but are pretty much ignored by everyone else. But some media is deeply embedded in our cultural landscape. Captain America is, Batman, Superman, and a lot of the other major superheroes are like this. Star Wars is like this, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes and the Disney Princesses are all like this. Everyone knows who these characters are, even if only in passing, even if they don’t care. Their impact is more or less inescapable.
Having a queer Disney princess is important and can’t be substituted with some other character, because Disney princesses are a major way our culture defines heroic femininity to little girls, so little girls need to be able to see a princess who is like them.
Yes, it makes a difference whether the character you’ve suddenly decided has always been a fascist sleeper agent was conceived as a tool to fight anti-semitism.
So, when you’re given custody of a character who is inextricably tied to our culture, then yes, you should probably expect to be held to a higher standard than when you’re just writing some story with a brand new character you made up yourself. If Nick Spencer had instead written a comic about his own brand new superhero Major Antarctica who, in a shocking twist, turned out to have been a fascist villain all along we would not be having anywhere near this level of discussion.
Because for the most part the pressure placed on creators of Captain America, or Princess Elsa, or any other culturally valuable character, doesn’t come from fans opposed to creator control, it is a result of writers not having that control in the first place. It comes from the fact that you are working with a character and a canon that has been the combined effort of many creators. You don’t have full creative control because you’re in someone else’s sandbox. Ironic that.
Okay, so maybe its not that shocking that someone who doesn’t understand fandom doesn’t understand that.
- Leaving room for fandom weirdness
Other than the legal issues, one of the most key differences between a work of fanfiction, and a work of original fiction is that most fanfiction isn’t really meant to be totally stand-alone. Fanfics, even AUs which don’t refer much to their original canons, exist in conversation with their original works.
The Death of the Author model doesn’t work especially well for analyzing fanworks. When a fan writer says “I want Steve Rogers to be happy” and writes a story where he is, treating that as a standalone piece of Captain America literature is a waste of everyone’s time. You can’t separate it from the trauma-heavy events of the MCU and/or Marvel Comics, or the authors feelings, either about that or about something else going on in their life.
Emotional engagement is what drives fans and fan culture.
This is why I have so much trouble taking creators seriously when they moan about fandom.
“Oh woe is us,” they moan, “we made art and people liked it so much they want to engage with it emotionally.”
“We suffer terribly,” they complain, “people have formed communities around their love and engagement with our work. Pity us.”
And yeah, sometimes we engage with things in ways that are unexpected, or unexpectedly intense, or even down right odd. And that’s okay. That’s actually great. If you make a thing, and someone finds it meaningful to them. Meaningful enough to want to keep right on interacting with, and to talk to others about, and to defend to other people? How are you not doing a happy dance about that? Why on earth would you be upset?
As a media creator, if a fan is harassing or threatening you, or pressing on or crossing your boundaries, that’s terrible, and you should do what you need to handle that.
But when you’re complaining that fans are loving your characters to much, or writing stories about them you wouldn’t have thought of, or interpreting them in new and interesting ways… consider that you may in fact, be acting like a jerk. Because you probably are.
- Has the fan/creator relationship changed?
Yes I think it has. I think the statement ‘the fan creator relationship has changed’ is about the only accurate statement in the whole silly article. Faraci keeps insisting that things have changed because fandom has somehow mutated, or grown out of control.
That isn’t it. Fandom is pretty amorphous, as I mentioned, and constantly moving onto new platforms, but we’re all pretty much just fanning away here the same as we ever have. What’s changed, what’s really changed is that creators and whiny media critics went from either being unaware of us or genteely ignoring us, to wandering into our spaces, knocking things off the shelves and occasionally peeing on the carpet. So, seeing as they were already there, we decided to talk to them.
And now we have to figure out how to deal with that.
Now to be totally honest there are some parts of fandom I think creators should be kept away from. If fandom ship wars could be totally divorced from all discussions of representation with a huge giant wall I would be delighted. If actors were never ever made to read smutfic about their characters again it would still be too soon.
But to say that fans should stop advocating for more inclusive stories, or to lump them in with people advocating the exact opposite because they can’t be bothered to do otherwise, is not acceptable behaviour.
If creators are uncomfortable with what we do with the toys they give us, they should stay out of fandom. They’re adults, they have back-buttons like the rest of us, and its on them to use them.