Tag: opinion

No, fandom is not broken

Contributed by
Jun 2, 2016, 3:22 PM EDT

You may have heard recently that, thanks to a mixture of death threats, social media run amok, and the corporatization of storytelling, the relationship between fans and creators is in a bit of a challenging transitional period right now. Looking at things like Gamergate, the controversy over Captain America being part of Hydra, #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, Ghostbusters, and a host of other things fans are having heated debates about, Devin Faraci of Birth. Movies. Death. made a declaration -- fandom is broken. Too many Annie Wilkeses from Misery dominating the conversation, not enough Justin Longs from Galaxy Quest saving Tim Allen and stoned Tony Shalhoub from that alien with the green pineapple head. You know the one.

Well, consider this my second opinion:

Fandom is not broken.

Fandom is, at worst, under construction. But, much like the major highway outside your house, you'd be forgiven for suspecting it's been under said construction and irreparable since the turn of the 20th century.

In the case of fandom, you'd also be kind of right. Almost. As even the Birth. Movies. Death. article that spawned this debate on fandom's brokenness admits -- creators being harangued by fans has been happening for a long time now. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received threats for killing off his hero detective, Sherlock Holmes, and L. Frank Baum received so many letters from children after he planned to end his Oz stories with The Emerald City of Oz that he went on to write eight more in the series.

Of course, that's not the entire story. Conan Doyle received a great many of those threats not because of the demise of Holmes, but because of Doyle's positions on Irish politics and female emancipation. And Baum, bless him, didn't just make more Oz books for the fans -- he was also bankrupt and needed the money.

So, yes, creators do get some threats (which, yes, are bad and should stop), but placing the responsibility of negative interactions squarely on the shoulders of fans ignores a much more complex power dynamic between fandom and creator.

Most of Faraci's treatise on the state of fandom is about how and the degree to which fans take ownership of the stories they consume. His theory is that, since most popular stories are no longer written and owned by creators, but rather written by authors hired by corporations who own the copyright to popular characters and stories, that fans see writers more as servers at a restaurant rather than as the chefs. This is exacerbated by the internet, and social media in particular, which grants easier-than-ever access to the people who create media. Any fan can reach out to any writer, director, or performer and tell them what they like or don't like. So if, say, a fan "orders" a Disney princess sequel like Frozen 2, for example, they might send the proverbial plate back because it doesn't have enough lesbian on it as was requested with the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag movement.

This, to me, is is not an example of fandom being broken, though -- this is an example of fandom working very well. Faraci specifically uses the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend movement as an example of fans unfairly demanding (a clear distinction from "asking for") something, but that's not what's actually happening in this case. Alexis Isabel, who started the hashtag, never expected Disney to make Elsa a lesbian. She didn't even think her hashtag would take off. But the reason that movement resonated with so many people was because Elsa's coming out story in Frozen felt very familiar to many in the LGBTQIA community. Saying Elsa should have a girlfriend isn't about forcing a change in the Frozen narrative, it's about reminding people that there's never been an officially out Disney princess before and acknowledging how powerful it would be if there were.

Just because a few people in that community make threats does not negate the positivity of the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend movement. Just because some people in literally any community use fandom as a Trojan Horse to harass for harassment's sake, does not mean every strongly-worded criticism made against a work or creator is unfair. And if someone opts not to see Frozen 2 at all because it's not gay enough, that doesn't mean no one else can see it. Frozen 2 will still exist and it will probably still sell really well.

That being said, not every negative fan/creator interaction can be explained away by activism. But it's more important to understand from whence this sense of ownership from fans comes rather than to simply demonize it.

Some of the most strongly-held examples of fan ownership don't stem from modern properties, or even legacy characters, they originate from once-popular franchises that were left fallow for an extended time only to be returned to the mainstream again later. I know this because I have been on the receiving end of this kind of intense fan obsession in the past. And there's an example that kind of fandom  which merits further examination to reach a better understanding of certain types of fan behavior.

I'm speaking, of course, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

You thought I was gonna say Ghostbusters? I done told you already I aint't talking about that anymore until the movie's out!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran on TV from 1997 until 2003, after which there were some, but not many, unofficial continuations of her story in book, comic, and video game form. During that time, fans who remained fiercely attached to Buffy and the gang decided that, if no one else was going to officially continue the Buffy saga, then the fans could. And they did. Fan fiction -- there was A LOT OF IT. Entire forums were dedicated to favorite pairings, rewatches of the show, cosplay, an all the things that go into building a tribal community. And just like tribalism across the board, these fan communities were fiercely loyal to one another and, on the real tip, kind of distrustful of outsiders.

The reason I know this is because, long before I wrote for Syfy's digital news imprint, I was cutting my teeth on entertainment journalism with a fan site dedicated to Joss Whedon. It was during this time that Dark Horse Comics announced an official continuation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer slated to begin in 2007. Buffy Season 8 featured many bold, new directions for Buffy and co., the most controversial of which was the decision to have Buffy and Angel have sex shortly after it was revealed that Angel had been the bad guy all season long.

Forums erupted for months, livejournals were flooded with posts about how the fans told better stories, and entire websites were dedicated to proving that then-Buffy editor Scott Allie, was the devil incarnate himself, and anyone who disagreed was not to be trusted.

And the reason that happened was because the fans had, for years, been the inherited custodians of the Buffy legacy. They had built a community of friends and creatives to imagine exciting new places Buffy could go. So, having someone who was largely a stranger swoop in and wipe those stories away in favor of an "official continuation" felt like a slap to the face. Writing new canon that was the opposite of what this fan community wanted was seen as an invasion of this tribe that many Buffy fans had created together.

Psychologically, it makes a lot of sense. Imagine someone left a baby on your doorstep and, after years of you raising it, that same someone turned up to take the child away from you and raise them completely differently even though they were the ones who abandoned them in the first place. You'd be pretty mad, right? 

That doesn't justify those that made slanderous comments, but it does show that, when fandom gets a little too intense, it's more complex than simply "fans are unfairly entitled and so fandom is now broken". That feeling of ownership doesn't come from thin air and it isn't as simple as "all feelings of ownership from fans are bad".

Fan communities save lives. They aren't just about liking a character, a show, or a film, they're about building  a space to escape from the challenges of everyday life. People with disabilities, people in abusive situations, people just struggling with money -- they all find acceptance and a sense of belonging in fan communities. And fans were the ones giving Buffy life for all those intervening years. Those fans were the reason Joss Whedon could justify to an executive that bringing Buffy back would be a worthwhile endeavor. Those fans are the reason Dark Horse is still making Buffy stories even now. Those are all good and noble things about fandom and some ugliness can't and won't negate it.

This "angry fans are all bad" narrative also excludes the part where, frankly, sometimes a work merits some serious criticism. There were plenty of people who were critical of the Buffy comics without making personal attacks. The problem was that, sometimes, it was easier for Dark Horse or IDW to write off all fan criticism because they could allow the valid, thoughtful stuff to become indistinguishable from the people who were just shouting because they weren't getting their way. That's not just a Buffy comics thing, that is a pitfall for any content creator. What saying "fandom is broken" does is it places all the blame for creator/fan conflict on fans. Just because some fans sometimes behave insappropriately does not mean creators are somehow above having their work and even their behavior online criticized. 

And that's the other, larger issue at hand in these online interactions between fan and creator -- they're still a two-way street. To say that no fans are worth listening to because some of them harass and some are overly connected to certain stories is folly. Plenty of creators (who are also human) make similar mistakes. Sometimes they also get too heated online. And some of them make threats. Creators get invested and they have tribes, too. The door swings both ways.

None of this is unique to fandom and none of it means any one group is entitled, or that the entire enterprise of fans and creators interacting with one another has become a zero sum game. Quite the contrary.

People thinking critically about the historical ramifications of Captain America being part of Hydra isn't fandom being broken -- it's fandom working. People pointing out the repeated tendency of LGBTQIA characters dying on television moreso than their hetero counterparts isn't fandom being broken -- it's fandom working. For every subreddit dedicated to sending a journalist death threats because they reported a video game's delayed release, there are countless more fans just thinking critically about the things they love. And for every creator who quits Twitter  or mistakes a fan space as their own there are infinitely more who learn from their fans and make better content as a result.

Which is all to say one thing, and I hope that you believe it -- Fandom. Is not. Broken.