Earlier this week, Devin Faraci of Birth Movies Death, wrote that fandom was broken. Out of control and on the attack, wild elements of the audience had broken free from their assigned role of mild adoration and GIFpreciation to wage war against creators. Hashtag campaigns, calls to action, death threats — described in one long breath, all much the same. Fan entitlement, when it meets anger, is vile and dangerous, that something rotten deep in the hart of fandom, poisoning the rest.
But this is fuzzy thinking. Full of logical fallacies. It’s not fans’ too-much-love or too-much-hate or even their expectations that make a space toxic or sour relationships, it’s crossing boundaries and engaging in abusive behaviour. And these behaviours aren’t the sole and special province of fans. Nor are they a product of fandom. Yes, it’s true. There are abusive fans. But to narrow the scope of internet abuse to that of fans hostile to creators is vile; a soft fade in that neglects the crucial facts and elides power dynamics.
The truth is that vulnerable people — marginalized people — experience a blistering degree of abuse on the internet, from micro-aggressions to violent threats, and it’s not because our abusers are fans. It’s because they hate us. The truth is that the collapse of boundaries, geographic and social, that social media has facilitated and encouraged has made vulnerable people even more vulnerable, the powerful more accessible, and has gifted us with powerful communicative tools that can be used for any purpose — sort of. If you ignore censorship, rape culture and all the unpleasant social realities that map from meatspace to digital. The truth is that although the internet and social media may feel like a neutral zone where power is collapsed and equalized, it isn’t. Social media does not eliminate systemic, institutionalized power imbalances — it reflects them and all too often reifies them.
Social media is democratizing in that it amplifies the possibilities of disruptive speech. But it does not give material power to those who previously had none and it does not, by function, dissolve traditional power structures. Social media amplifies, it does not imbue.
Circling back to fandom: social media does not give over the means of production to fans; rather, it makes fans harder to ignore. GamerGate used social media to harass women. Frozen fans used social media to advocate for queer representation in children’s media. This is not a case of “both sides” using one neutral tool, or even a case of “two sides of the same coin.” #GiveElsaAGirlfriend is not the opposite of GamerGate; it’s not the good fans to GamerGate’s bad. The difference is not manners, it is power and violence.
When #GiveElsaAGirlfriend trended on Twitter, that was democratic disruption. The campaign shone a light on the lack of representation and toxic misrepresentation of queer people in children’s media, and it suggested a path forward. When GamerGate trended it was a terrifying reflection of what marginalized people have always seen in the internet: that we are not safe. That harassers and abusers too easily find support from the “reasonable.” That standing up for ourselves too often means painting a target on our backs.
Faraci says that fandom has become entitled. This, he says has happened because of two recent changes to the “traditional” creator-art-audience relationship. 1) Social media has collapsed boundaries betweens creators and audiences and especially the invested subset of audience we call fans. 2) The corporatization of pop culture has blurred the lines of creative ownership such that the consumer-audience claims a greater stake than the creators themselves. That is, fans have convinced themselves that they own the art and they are using social media to demand that art be made to satisfy them. And when they aren’t satisfied, they will turn on creators.
There is a lot to unpack here. Not least because Faraci’s argument tends toward generalizations more than specifics — death threats against Nick Spencer and Tom Brevoort of Marvel comics are positioned as the next step of Frozen fans’ #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign, but Faraci neglects the connective rhetorical tissue to explain exactly why he thinks that is. Campaigns are conflated with brigading, criticism with insult, speech with abuse. Fan desire is linked inextricably with entitlement which is itself linked with fan abuse: when fans want too much and identify too much they seek to annihilate. There are slippery slopes everywhere in this argument, a series of too-easy, hollow if-thens without a logical centre. The amplified voices of fans demanding representation are so loud; it must also be that they are dangerous. Fans sometimes make demands. It’s so disrespectful! Only the creator knows what’s right for his work, right? But wait-
With this new entitled fandom the creator is toppled off his perch, says Faraci. But yet, the perch was only in your head! The distance between creator and created, viewer and viewed is somewhat less than you might think. Art is a dialogue between creator, created and audience. Topple one leg of that triangle and you’re in the realm of one hand clapping while a tree falls in the woods to no one’s attention — it’s not art until someone calls it art; it’s not art until someone experiences it as art. Get it? Art is a feedback loop. And in corporate art that feedback loop is managed — by committee — to satisfy, to entice and to produce the conditions for more.
Corporate art is both unique art piece and brand asset. The expression of audience desires and needs and offences is exactly that, not entitlement but a mass, public conversation, the natural engagement of audience and community and corporate pop culture that is tailored for maximum audience investment. In brand building, the consumer is a participant, not just the end point of a sales process, and through the process of identification becomes part owner of the brand. There’s no Tony the Tiger without the millions of children who ate him up, morning after morning.Corporations sell us art in the same way they sell us cereal. Every Marvel comic stands on its own as a story, an art object, and as an asset that seeks the perpetuation of its mother-brand. Corporate art is both art and product and the creator is in no sense an auteur, creating art for art’s sake or for his own story-engineer satisfaction. Regardless of the quality of the art object — the individual comic — it is a product, a thing to be sold in mass quantities with an ideal consumer in mind. What a comic book creator doing work for hire at Marvel or DC comics is doing is making art-product that satisfies, in some part, their creative ambitions but within the parameters explicitly set out by IP owners and implicitly set out by the complex relationships between reader-consumer, the art-brand and pop culture as a whole.
In corporate art fans are a huge part of the conversation — but not all fan opinions are brand optimal. Not everyone is welcomed into the brand relationship of creator, consumer and consumed. #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, #GiveCapABoyfriend and the backlash against Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 are moments where the neglected demographic creates a space in which it can and must be heard. Trending your hashtag on Twitter ensures that many who hadn’t considered your position before will see your argument but it also opens marginalized people up to trolls — and it doesn’t ensure that either corporations or creators will heed what they have heard. Sometimes fans demanding representation do have an impact but more often the audience is playing the long game, hoping more that creators of future works will do better, rather than expecting the in progress media they’ve already fallen in love with will change for the better. If you’ve done media criticism focused on representation equity and social justice for even a few months, you know how much it feels like you’re shouting into a void that somehow, laws of physics be damned, shouts back insults and threats.
I understand that on the other side, for creators, it can seem that fans have gotten too close. That those demands for representation are somehow meant as personal attacks. Too often I see creators decrying mobs of social justice warriors, fans out for blood, which, on investigation turn out to be people crying “you have hurt me, don’t I exist in your world?” Yes, let’s take it as given that death threats happen and that creators get their share of abuse — but this is in no way an indictment of a vocal audience, an invested fandom or the corporate-art system. When creators are abused, some critics are all too happy to leap on these instances to prove, once and for all, that fandom is entitled, callout culture is toxic and social media is giving too much power to people who shouldn’t have it. But abusive fans are not fandom. The backlash against Captain America #1 is not the backlash against the new all-female Ghostbusters. These are false equivalencies and they are being employed for one reason: to silence.
Fandom isn’t broken. It isn’t, actually, something that can or should be fixed. These hashtag campaigns that have so many running scared? These wild backlashes against killing off queer characters or spitting on the legacy of marginalized creators? They’re here to stay. You invited fans to the table. They just want a moment to be heard.