Fandom Is Broken

Controversies and entitlement shine a light on a deeply troubling side of fandom.

What if Annie Wilkes had the internet?

Annie, of course, is the antagonist of Stephen King's Misery, a pre-web story about the dark side of the relationship between fan and creator. When Annie finds novelist Paul Sheldon - the author of her favorite romance series, about a woman named Misery Chastain - in a car accident off a mountain road she takes him home to convalesce. A nurse, she tends to Paul's broken legs but refuses to take him to a hospital; you see, Paul has recently killed off Misery and Annie will have none of that. While she has the man in her care she brutally forces him to write a new Misery Chastain novel that will bring the heroine back from the dead. The story is a very, very thinly veiled metaphor for the relationship between pop fiction creators and their most dedicated, most rabid fanbases and the way the creators can be trapped, bullied and tortured by their own creations and the people who love them. 

But what if Annie Wilkes had the internet? What if she didn't have to kidnap Paul in order to make her displeasure with him known? What if she could tweet hate at him all day, or could fill message boards with personal bile about him or could directly send him death threats through Facebook, email or Tumblr? If Annie Wilkes had the internet she would fit right in with a disturbingly large segment of fandom. 

This isn't really a new thing - way back in 2012 I named Annie Wilkes the Patron Saint of Fandom after the childish, ridiculous uproar over the ending of Mass Effect 3. What I couldn't have known in 2012 was that the Mass Effect uprising was just a preview of the main event; that tantrum happened under the auspices of being a 'consumer revolt,' which would be the same kind of language behind which terrorist hate group GamerGate still hides. And in the years since Mass Effect 3 it seems as if the crazy has been ramping up, and as the wall dividing creators and fans gets ever thinner with each new social media platform the number of voices being raised has grown. 

And it was not even a new thing when King wrote Annie into existence; fandom has been pressuring creators at least since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes over the side of Reichenbach Falls, and who knows how audience reactions helped mold the telling of ancient Greek myths. There's always been a push and a pull between creator and fan, and while it can sometimes be negative it was, historically, generally positive. Fans used to raise their voices to save canceled TV shows or to support niche comic books, but now that we live in a world where every canceled show comes to Netflix or gets a comic book tie-in or lives on as a series of novels the fans have stopped defending the stuff they love and gotten more and more involved in trying to shape it. And not through writing or creating but by yelling and brigading and, more and more, threatening death. 

Last week the AV Club ran an excellent piece about the nature of modern fan entitlement, and I think it's fairly even-handed. The piece covers both the reaction to an all-female Ghostbusters reboot but also the hashtag that trended trying to get Elsa a girlfriend in Frozen 2. The author of that piece, Jesse Hasenger, draws a line between the two fan campaigns, rightly saying that whether driven by hate (Ghostbusters) or a desire for inclusion (Frozen 2) both campaigns show the entitlement of modern fan culture. It's all about demanding what you want out of the story, believing that the story should be tailored to your individual needs, not the expression of the creators. These fans are treating stories like ordering at a restaurant - hold the pickles, please, and can I substitute kale for the lettuce? But that isn't how art works, and that shouldn't be how art lovers react to art. They shouldn't be bringing a bucket of paint to the museum to take out some of the blue from those Picassos, you know?

The AV Club's piece ran a day too early, it turns out. The same day the piece hit the internet exploded in another fan outrage, this time coming as a result of Steve Rogers: Captain America #1, a new Marvel comic that revealed - dun dun dunnnn! - that Captain America had actually been a Hydra double agent his whole life. It was a shocking reveal at the end of the comic, and nobody yet knows what the narrative payoff to it will be. But that didn't stop people from really just freaking the fuck out and flooding the Twitter feed of writer Nick Spencer with so much hate that he simply had to log off. They began going after writer Ed Brubaker, who hadn't written a Cap comic in five years. They started calling people anti-Semites (because, they reasoned, Cap was created by two Jewish kids to fight Nazis and now Marvel had made him a Nazi. None of that really holds up, especially the idea that Hydra are Nazis. They are not and never were in the Marvel comics universe, and even the movies went through a lot of effort to show that Hydra was aiming to fight the Nazis as well) and then the death threats came in. They started trickling in on Twitter to Spencer, and now a truly chilling one came, via Tumblr, to Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort. I've included the whole thing here:

As a Former Active Duty US Marine and a Disabled Veteran, I want you to know that when I joined the Marines back in 95’ I did so under a strict Code of Ethics. Truth, Honor and Justice. This Code was inspired by Steve Rogers. I knew I could never be the person he was, I just wasn’t mentally built for it, but it gave me something to strive for. Yes, the Character of Stever Rogers AKA Captain America is a fictional one, but it is also one that emboydies what the Idea Human Being, not just American should strive to be. Steve Rogers never claimed to be perfect, but he tried his best every day to do the right thing no matter what.

For the last 21 years I have modeled my own Moral Code after the belief that I would NEVER tell a Lie, No matter the consequences. There is no such thing as “a little white lie”. My Honesty, and My Honor was everything to me. It kept me from becoming the Monster that I could have easily become. Thanks to your idiocy and disregard for what an American Symbol stood for, you have made it “OK” to disregard those Ideals. It apperantly is ok to Lie, Cheat, Steal and Murder, because Fuck It, who cares right? Steve Rogers aka Captain American has been doing it for 75 YEARS. 

Fine, congradulations, you have made the last 21 years of my life and the Code I lived by, the hardships I endured because I refused to sacrifice that Code MEANINGLESS. You have disgraced what Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had the character stand for. The whole point of that Character was to showcase the potential of what human beings could be. Dispite the Odds stacked against them.

So, thanks to you two I will be throwing away my Moral Code, and become The Monster, that people feared I might become, that I myself feared I would become. I will use every resource at my disposal, every avenue that I can to locate and track you down. I WILL find you eventually, and I WILL kill you in the most painful way possible that I can think of. The ONLY way to stop me is to have me killed. But hey, that should be a walk in the park for you right? I mean I am just one disgruntled Marine, what is one more life compared to the MILLIONS of LIVES you just dismissed by making Captain America a Hydra Agent ALL ALONG. NOTHING and I mean NOTHING you say will erase what you have done, HYDRA was ALWAYS SYNOMOUS with NAZIS. You CANNOT seperate the two. So enjoy your “Fame” while you are able to still draw breath. It’s just a matter of time before I find you.

-J___ E____
USMC Disabled Veteran

Is it bullshit? Maybe. Trolls gotta troll. But man, there is something in there that just rings true to me. I recognize the broken nature of modern fandom in that death threat. 

I've gotten my fair share of death threats. Some were really scary. Some were obviously nonsense. One time I managed to hunt down a kid who threatened to kill me and called him; I won't deny that his tear-filled voice as he begged me not to call the police and report him gave me some pleasure. I've been writing about movies, comics and pop culture online for about 15 years now and I have seen how much easier it has gotten for people to just send nasty, hateful comments directly to you, and I have seen how willing they are to just do it. One time a guy tweeted something exceptionally upsetting at me and when I replied to him he was surprised - he told me he never thought I would read his tweet. 

All of this factors into the strange mindset of how we interact online. We have immediate access to spew any kind of hate at almost anyone instantly, and we probably also have a sense that nobody's actually listening. Or at least I hope that's the case - when director James Gunn defended the Captain America twist someone on his Facebook page left a comment wishing for Gunn's pet to be fed into a wood chipper. You have to hope that the guy thinks he's just muttering under his breath, that Gunn wouldn't actually see it, because the other version of that makes you despair for humanity. 

This immediate access to the people who create the stuff we love was supposed to be the greatest thing that ever happened to fandom. If you talk to old TV writers or scifi novelists they'll tell you that they were often creating work in a void, not sure what people thought of what they were doing. It took a lot of effort to send a letter, so the only people who did that were the truly committed, but the general populace was largely silent. You just knew if they were watching or buying. But social media bridged the gap, and creators are no longer working in a void. Instead they're working in some kind of a chamber of screams, where people can and do voice their immediate and often personal displeasure directly and horribly. 

I don't want to pretend that this is some sort of generational shift; if that death threat above is to be believed the guy who made it is either in his 40s or fast approaching his 40s. This underbelly has always been there in fandom, going back to Doyle and beyond. There are new wrinkles for younger fans, a group that seems uninterested in conflict or personal difficulty in their narratives (look at the popularity of fan fics set in coffee shops or bakeries, which posit the characters of a comic or TV show or movie they love as co-workers having sub-sitcom level interactions. I had an argument with a younger fan on Twitter recently and she told me that what she wants out of a Captain America story is to see Steve Rogers be happy and get whatever he wants - ie, the exact opposite of what you want from good drama), but while the details change the general attitude is the same: this is what I want out of these stories, and if you don't give it to me you're anti-Semitic/ripping off the consumer/a dead man.

In a lot of ways fandom has always been a powder keg just waiting for the right moment to explode, and that moment is the ubiquity of social media. Twitter is the match that has been touched to this powder keg, and all of a sudden the uglier parts of fandom - the entitlement, the demands, the frankly poor understanding of how drama and storytelling work - have blown the fuck up. Annie Wilkes is ascendent, and she's got #BringBackMiseryChastainOrDie trending. Paul Sheldon was doing pretty okay until Annie Wilkes got direct access to him, after all. 

The last time I wrote about Annie Wilkes and fandom I thought it was all about how deeply personal fans take their fandoms. People sink a lot of time and energy into these fandoms, and they tend to define themselves by these fandoms. Fucking with the thing - the movie, the comic, the game - feels like a personal attack. It isn't just a sense of ownership, it's a sense of symbiosis. The fan, I thought, couldn't tell where they ended and where the thing they loved began. This is why fans send death threats to critics who give comic book movies bad reviews. It's why my name is like Voldemort's at the DC Movies subreddit - my criticism of the things they love feel to them like criticism of themselves. 

But there's something else going on now. Once upon a time the over-identification was between the fan and the creator - it's why so many celebs get stalked. But in the last twenty years the very nature of our entertainment landscape has changed so thoroughly that there isn't even a Paul Sheldon anymore. Paul long ago handed off hs Misery Chastain novels to a new writer, who handed them off to a new writer and so on and so forth. The corporatized nature of the stories we consume has led fans - already having a hard time understanding the idea of an artist's vision - to assume almost total ownership of the stuff they love. And I use that word ownership in a very specific sense - these people see themselves as consumers as much as they see themselves as fans. This is what the "Retake Mass Effect" movement was foreshadowing. They see these stories as products.

The old fan entitlement has been soldered onto the 'customer is always right' mindset that seems to motivate the people who make Yelp so shitty. I'm spending a dollar here, which makes me the lord and master of all, is the reasoning (I don't even want to speculate about whether or not modern fans spend their dollars on licensed, legal products - that's an essay for another weary day). It's what makes people act like assholes to servers, and somehow it's become the way ever-growing segments of fans are behaving towards creators. It's been interesting watching so many people bring up Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the Captain America fracas; one of part of it is that their Jewishness allows angry, petulant fans to throw down a social justice bomb but it also speaks to how modern fans see many modern creators. They're nobody compared to the ones who invented this stuff. The modern creator is the server, and they should be going back into the kitchen and bringing back a Captain America cooked to their exact specifications, and without any sort of complications or surprises. This is what fans have always wanted, but the idea of being consumers - people who are offering money for services rendered - only reinforces the entitlement. 

And so we have these three elements - one old as fandom itself, one rooted in technological advances and one impacted by the corporatization of storytelling - coming together in such a way to truly break fandom. I wish this was the part of the essay where I come to you with a hopeful pep talk about how we can all be better, but I just don't see a positive solution. If anything, I see things getting worse - creators walling themselves off from fans while corporate masters happily throw vision and storytelling under the bus to appease the people who can get hashtags trending. "You can't always get what you want" is a sentiment that belongs to another era when it comes to mass storytelling. I recently read Glen Weldon's excellent The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture and the arc of fandom it sketches out is a profoundly disheartening one, with Batfans morphing from monkish annotators of the character's fictional history into crusaders harrassing anyone on the internet who sees Batman differently than they do. 

Back in high school I had a great religion teacher. He used to have us bring in quotes from pop culture that could be applied to religion because he wanted us to understand how pervasive religion was to people a thousand years ago, as pervasive as music or movies are to us today. He believed that the future would see people no longer killing each other over interpretations of God but over bands (this was like 1990, so the idea that anybody would still care that much about rock was reasonable yet). I think he was on the right track when it comes to the way pop culture has replaced other things that used to give us meaning, but I don't think he could have ever guessed it would be comic book characters and Ghostbusters that would motivate the 21st century's holy popcult warriors. Or that they would be striding into battle clad in the righteous armor of consumerism. Or that the people they would be attacking would be, first and foremost, the people who bring them the stuff that they love.

UPDATE: I never thought this piece would blow up this way. Some people have misinterpreted parts of this essay, so I have addressed those issues in a follow-up piece called "Yes, Disney Should Have A Queer Princess"