He-Man, Hugos, and Who Benefits From Fandom

Prince Adam stands in front of Castle Grayskull, holding aloft his sword as magical light emits from the blade

Last night I learned about two things in quick succession.

First was AO3’s Hugo win. AO3, or more formally Archive Of Our Own, is a repository for transformative works of fandom. It currently hosts over 5 million works from more than 33 thousand fandoms. It’s a fan-run, not-for-profit, noncommercial endeavour that gives space to millions of fans worldwide for free.

Transformative fandom is usually viewed as the lesser kind of fandom. It is not dependant on how much you spend or how much knowledge you can amass, but rather on your personal relationship with a property. It’s a practical, hands on sort of fandom that flourishes in spaces where conversation and creativity are valued. It is welcoming, subversive and far reaching and more often than not, it is the sort of fandom practiced by women and members of marginalised communities, genders, and sexualities and last night, it won an award.

Shortly after this I saw Netflix’s announcement for a new animated He-Man series. Cool right? After the success of the rebooted She-Ra they would be stupid not to cash in on that. We’ve all seen the toys and costumes and a whole new generation of kids absolutely living for the princess alliance. Why not spread a little of that love across to Eternia?

Promotional image for Netflix original series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Promotional image for Netflix original series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Honestly, I was pretty psyched. He-Man, for those of you too young to remember, ran for a few years in the early ’80s. It was primarily designed to sell toys and was most popular among boys between the ages of 4 and 8 years old. I watched it in the early ’90s when I was also that age. I spent a lot of time running around hitting things with a stick yelling “By The Power of Grayskull!” I was boisterous ok? Right now, the youngest of my siblings is 6 years old, and while he doesn’t have a lot of patience for TV, the fact that we could potentially share in this in the same way I have seen friends share She-Ra with their children is all kinds of fun.

And then I found out who was directing and everything got a little fuzzy because there was no way that could be right. Why would you hire Kevin Smith to direct a kids show?  Kevin Smith, creator of the worst tweet of all time and writer of a Batman story that see the caped crusader get high and piss himself?  Apparently he’s a super fan but interestingly he would have already have been a teenager by the time it first aired, which, to be honest, strikes me as a little weird. But I’m not actually here to yuck anyones yum (even if that yum happens to be jacking it to Evil-Lyn). You go follow your bliss or whatever.

Anyway, then I read a little more and all the pieces fell into place. It’s not going to be a kid’s show, is it?

Promotional image for Netflix original series Masters of the Universe: Revelation

Because to make a kids show, Kevin Smith would need to share. Fanboys, particularly those who have risen through the ranks like Smith to become fanboy auteurs, don’t like to share. Especially not with people whose fandom that they don’t consider to be as pure as their own.

The kind of fandom I’m referring to is generally known as affirmational. Corporations love it because it’s the sort of fandom that is hinged on consumerism — the more you buy the better a fan you are — and it’s usually practiced by men. But, the thing about sinking a lot of money into a thing is you start to develop a sense of ownership around it and when a thing becomes yours you stop wanting to share. Even when that thing is designed for children.

That’s why some people look at She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and don’t see the success or the inclusion or even the fact that children, its target demographic, enjoy it. They see something that used to belong to them in the hands of someone new in a way they don’t approve of. And it’s why, with the He-Man series, they see the prospect of digging in their heels, of reaffirming their ownership and doubling down on the sense of entitlement that makes them think that any of this has even the slightest thing to do with them.

Why would a person in their 40s require an olive branch from a cartoon? Why would they not just be excited to see what this could do for a whole new generation?

I’ve been told that this series is supposed to serve as an olive branch for the original fans which  while I would argue differently, doesn’t technically include me because, even though I came to it at exactly the right age, I also came into it 10 years too late. If we assume that puts the original fans at 10 years older than me, then that puts them all firmly in their 40s [Editor’s Note: Yup. That’s me]. That begs the question: Why would a person in their 40s require an olive branch from a cartoon? Why would they not just be excited to see what this could do for a whole new generation? The answer of course is a sense of entitlement that I can not even begin to imagine and the crushing realisation that all that time and money you gave to Mattel will never be reciprocated.

But this is of course what happens when you allow capitalism to dictate the terms of whose love and enjoyment of a thing is most pure, and when we as a society consistently reward the people with the means to consume the most while denigrating those who interact with media in a transformative way. It also makes it really easy to forget that at least 30% of the original audience was made up of little girls — I don’t have figures on PoC and LGBTQ+ folks but let’s not pretend they weren’t there too [Editor’s Note: Yup. Also me.] — and push them out toward the margins. These marginalized fans create their own communities built on new understandings, and readings, they choose fanon over canon, and last night they won a Hugo Award. Shouldn’t He-Man look to a new generation of young fans and the untapped potential within them, instead?