What Devin Faraci Gets Wrong About Audience, Ownership and Power

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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.

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About Author

Editor-In-Chief. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

12 Comments

  1. Hi, Megan! I’ve been envolved in a discussion about this topic since yesterday I your article is the one that probably sums up my thoughts the most. Thanks for this. As a unapologetic fan of the concept of fandom and the way we present ourselves on the internet, with fanfic, fanart, criticism and evolution, I find it disheartening both that creators are being harrassed online and that they don’t see how amazing it is that now they have the chance to hear in almost real times several amazing, smart, different people analyzing their work. Thanks for the article!

  2. I love what Shaun Kronenfeld said in his recent video about Captain America: Steve Rogers #1: that if anyone watching is the type to send him or anyone else a death threat, just go away and never come back; we don’t want you around. It was a lot more poignant the way he said it, but you get the drift.

    Never, ever threaten harm to people. By attempting to induce fear in others, you are engaging in an act of terror. You may be minor-minor-minor-league, but you are still being the same sorts of awful monster that keep getting brought up in the news.

    Just threaten to never buy their material again, and that you’ll urge do others to do the same. For the time being, I’m never buying Nick Spencer.

  3. Catherine Kane on

    Respectfully, there’s always been a connection between creative artists and the people who received their art. Going back before the internet, many artists worked for pay or for patrons, and if you didn’t meet the wishes of the public, you’d starve.

    The idea that fans demanding art that suits their tastes is a new thing is not really accurate

    • Megan Purdy on

      I didn’t say it was a new thing. However, the affect of corporate branding on art and fandom is a newish thing.

  4. While this is a good piece overall, I am not comfortable with your implication that it is wrong to call callout culture toxic. Various writers on the topic of social justice have critiqued it, including Sandy Doyle and Miri Mogilevsky, have pointed out how easily and frequently it is used for bullying purposes. Even when one takes the power differential between fans and creators into account, it is entirely possible for such callouts to be wrongheaded and over the top — as when Dragon Age fans went after David Gaider and Patrick Weekes, who are a damn sight better than most creators.

  5. As a fan who rolled my eyes at Faraci’s piece, I think your own raises some good points about corporate art and about power differentials.

    Where I cannot agree with you is your blithe implication that callout culture is not toxic. Social justice writers, starting with Flavia Dzodan in 2011, have been examining the shortcomings of callout culture for years now. It is far too easily abused as a bullying implement.

    Mostly this happens between fans. The called-out is not always more privileged than the caller-out. And, quite often, the “offense” is something on the level of shipping the “wrong” characters. That said, it is entirely possible to bully creators: David Gaider was driven off Tumblr, and Patrick Weekes off Twitter. The irony is that Bioware has been far more progressive than most canon creators. That’s not to say that Gaider or Weekes should have been immune from criticism, but that the reaction was ridiculous — and, yet, just stating that leaves one open to being accused of using a tone argument, as if hounding someone off a social platform is the same as raising one’s voice in frustrated anger.

  6. Cathey Glass on

    I’m sorry, but you’re thinking here is genuinely troubling. The idea that certain creations are barred from being art because they are mass product is frankly dangerous, the same kind of logic that Gamer Gate uses (“stop inserting personal politics into criticism. Video Games are products, not art).

    Art as a medium has been built through consumerism, and denying a works right to auteurism because the creator has the human need to buy food and shelter, your gatekeeping.

    And yes, the backlash against Cap #1 at this point is no better than the Ghostbusters reaction, because when your at the point of threatening the lives of artists and burning comics in protest, you are reaffirming that both sides of the spectrum reveal themselves to be horrible when provoked. And you can say ‘it’s just a few many bad apples,’ but when you need to drag that excuse out over and over, are we really addressing the problem?

  7. Interesting read. I think what both you and Faraci are talking about – and I believe you are far closer to each other than either would care to admit – is the very thin line between having your voice heard and harassment. The best of intentions can be turned into horrific venom on the web (someone else wrote a great “Internet has a Harassment Problem” piece related to this in the last few days).

    While inelegantly written, that is at heart what Faraci is saying. It’s fine to be upset and angry at Cap’s Hydra heel turn. It’s another to tell someone their pet should go in a wood chipper. And while that might be rare it’s not OK, nor should it be.

    And it’s a fine line sometimes because we, as fans, do not control art (and movies, games, comics are that – I think we disagree here, and that’s fine). We _can_ influence it though – and that’s critical for inclusion both of diverse characters AND diverse voices. But there is a segment online who, even if I agree with their thoughts, can cross the line to being rather nasty. And the more liberal we are, I think the harder that is to face and admit because we see our intentions as pure and sometimes it’s hard to admit that we are all capable of being jerks as well.

    But face it we must because it’s not right. I don’t care who is the target – female, minority, gay, straight, male, white – threats and hatred are never OK.

    On the other hand, unlike some, I looked at the Elsa and Bucky/Cap things as not literal desires – yes, they can be, but the movements are making a wider point: we want more inclusion and diversity. I don’t know anyone realistically expects Elsa to be gay or Bucky and Cap to get together – but to see someone who fills those roles sometime in the near future. Sooner than later.

    And that dialogue is important. As a writer, I am working on something (which may never be read by anyone but my kids, wife and dogs) and the conversations I have had around this moved me to make the main character a woman and my cast more diverse. And that wouldn’t have happened without these conversations.

    But it wouldn’t have happened if, in those conversations, people were being hateful and terrible. And again, it does happen.

    However, as I mentioned above, this is an internet (and maybe people) issue. Hell, I work in sports and it’s as bad – especially for women writers – as it is anywhere else – so toxic. and the people on any side who are the nastiest are often the outliers but get heard the most because they are so loud about it. The saner voices get lost in the wash.

    So I think it’s a line. It’s also a broader problem online. The simple idea of “don’t be a jerk” should be in the backs of our minds, right near “be relentless” and “be heard.”

    Anyway, this has given me some food for thought, as the original piece did as well. I hope that both you and Faraci can see the other’s points – in the end it’s a dialogue we need to have to keep improving life around here.

    I’m also glad to have found this site through it.

    • On account of being written so inelegantly, it’s not what Faraci was saying. He’s just saying Stuff, in the knowledge that there are real problems in the world of commercial fiction, that readers will be aware of. The quality of writing really does matter when one is broaching subjects which are changed dramatically by the crossing of thin, as you say, lines.

      As for investment becoming overbearing action, I believe it’s not an internet issue so much as a communication issue, a boundary issue, an awareness issue. Not every person who wants the same things and with the same intensity has the social vulnerability to need to shout to be heard; not every person who says “give us this” at the top of their voice has the social security to rely upon softer styles of ask. Every person, individually, finds themselves in a position of needing to evaluate their context andante status, and the context and status within relevant and applicable power structures of the person or people who can or might be able to give the world the thing that it’s missing, and when we’ve done that, we’ll know who and how to ask for what we want. Not everybody does that, but many who don’t will use an appropriate level of force instinctively anyway. And many more will choose to act abusively because they like he way that feels, and that will be due to their personal motivation and context, and what they believe that specific contexts mean they can get away with, but it won’t be because of fandom or “because of” the Internet. These things will just exist, like any crowds, enabling them to slide in with some confidence something they, as you say, will have chosen or allowed to do themselves.