Toxic fandom, as encouraged by corporations, is destroying art. What to do about it?
Lots of things are coming to an end these days. The Avengers films. Game of Thrones. The world. As can be predicted, nobody’s taking it particularly well.
Certain sectors of the Internet have predictably melted down about the dumbest, silliest shit imaginable, reminding us once again that the greatest currency is not money or clicks or uniqueness, but rage. Your takes must be hot: designed to rile up your audience. The madder you make them, the more they respond. It’s a cycle. Every Youtuber knows it. It could be trying to remake a season of TV or redesign a movie character or remove a female character from your franchise (because of course). The content matters so much less than the ability to tap into a viewer’s seething, impotent rage.
Fandom has a lot of problems, especially now that the Internet has granted a trigger-finger microphone to the kind of people who used to have to self-address and stamp their death threats to creators directly.
Is this something to do with fandom most generally, as we have constructed it to exist in 2019? The endless conventions, trending hashtags, wikias, franchise tie-ins, attempted multi-level merchandising strategies, after-show shows, calculated social media campaigns. Everything is a half-hearted attempt at launching cinematic universes. TV shows get canceled and immediately lurch into pre-baked #SaveOurShowByGoingOnAnotherNetwork campaigns. It’s almost calculated to draw out maximum interest and outrage.
These things have always existed, but these days, it’s easier than ever to see the strings. Even with the massive success of the movies, the comic book industry (particularly Marvel) has heavily suffered sales losses because they try to harness this kind of rage to diminishing returns. When they do things like killing off Peter Parker by body-swapping him with Doctor Octopus, or revealing that Captain America is a Hydra agent — regardless of the quality or novelty of those stories — the marketing strategy they decided upon was to insist that a) this is how things were going to be from now on, forever, and b) this was always the plan. Marvel editor Stephen Wacker even famously said that in a few years, Peter Parker would fade away entirely, irrelevantly, because the new Spider-Man would be Otto Octavius.
I don’t bring this up as a lament for the fictional stories or fictional consequences endured by these fictional characters. The point is that their entire existence is basically a means to foster a negative relationship with the fans, to get them on the hook by luring them in with rage.
This is all patently absurd, of course, but they seem to think it’s what drives sales (it doesn’t). I know it’s bad to gatekeep fandoms, but I’ve held a belief for years now that you can’t truly understand comics until your reaction to Marvel’s “Most Important X-Men Scene Of All Time!” or DC’s “Earth-Shattering New Revelations!” are frustrated, sad sighs. The stories themselves are ancillary to the marketing structure provided for them.
But that’s what art is. And I’m not about to pretend like comic books were ever some sacred space for True Artists to create. They were always popular fiction designed to sell ads and toys for kids, quick for-hire work by harried, overworked artists just trying to make ends meet. Same as newspapers or television or any other form of entertainment we have today. But somewhere along the way, people who grew up with popular fiction found themselves in the wild weirdness that science fiction or genre entertainment demanded. And somewhere further, that identification itself became commodified, controlled, used as an identity.
To be a capital-f Fan in 2019 is not merely to enjoy a piece of entertainment but to participate in scheduled livetweets, to cosplay, to aggressively stan (and/or cancel) your fave, to coordinate large-scale production of fan art and fanfic, to identify with a larger Fandom Group complete with hierarchy and pecking order.
None of this, individually, is particularly terrible behavior. Fan communities have done truly great things and given young people, especially marginalized ones, the ability to find common ground. It’s just how the Internet has fragmented and codified groups at the same time, and how cultural capital has shifted almost entirely in the favor of a few massive corporations. The Disney-Fox merger scares me, and it should bother you too.
Why must I even qualify the above statement by insisting that I grew up on Disney and love many of their movies? That’s the expectation placed upon people. The architecture of Fandom is set up so that people must only mindlessly Consume at all costs, and any criticism — especially that of the corporate structure — is quickly silenced by legions of people taking the side of the massive corporate monolith.
I don’t say any of this to be a “hater” or an “anti” — I say it because of larger-scale political and social concerns outside of and bigger than the Fandom, with a perspective on the real-world implications of the consolidation of media.
Sure, I’ll go see a live action remake or a new Star War, but what happens when a single corporation — one with a less-than-spotless record on race or gender politics — controls every story that is told?
What happens when the only things we can share meaningfully are products, and when our culture itself is so cleaved apart and atomized that even our folk tales, our fairy tales, our common stories, are bought and sanitized and sold back to us?
And in a strange way, though there is more money to be made in entertainment and storytelling than ever before, so little of it is going to new and emerging writers, artists, and musicians. Soundcloud and Bandcamp have revolutionized the way music is consumed, and given platform to millions who otherwise would never be able to share their art — and yet, the corporations at the top of the industry have taken increasingly larger shares of the pie.
We’ve reached the stage of late capitalism where people have been complaining that everything is only a reboot of a remake of a reboot of a remake for the last two decades now. That in itself isn’t new. It’s not that new art isn’t produced, or new methods of creativity aren’t explored — the difference in interacting with society and culture between Vine, TikTok, and Instagram could by itself be a field of study on its own. It’s that the new ways we make creativity have been so devalued and discarded, in favor of the inexorable march of Brands vying for complete takeover of the digital public sphere.
And instead of comprehending this new reality, Fandoms choose to demand more content to please them, regardless of how it is sourced or what it represents. The same way that capitalism demands the subjugation of all things to emphasize profit, Fandoms will leak into actors’ or writer’s personal lives, make callous demands of performers (WHERE IS THE ALBUM?????), target harassment campaigns at each other, and cultivate group identities so severe that driving people to self-harm or suicide is seen as an admirable goal in defense of the larger Fandom. It happens with everything from pop singers to children’s cartoons to the fans of a particular “ship” in a particular movie or show.
You can’t even mention, for example, Ariana Grande or Beyoncé on Twitter or Instagram, especially in a negative context, without being immediately swarmed by vast legions of stans who will “defend” a multi-millionaire by conducting mass harassment campaigns against random people. Or God forbid you express distaste for someone like Elon Musk or Jordan Peterson, and your social media will be instantly swarmed with identical people nodding sagely, requesting you to debate them.
A couple weeks ago, Beyoncé fans started sending death threats to a woman who leaned over her to talk to Jay-Z. Fandoms of children’s cartoons even get on the action! The Voltron: Legendary Defender fandom started sending death threats to the creators and voice actors on the show for minor storytelling decisions. Rick and Morty fans had collective seizures about a novelty McDonald’s chicken nugget sauce, calling police and physically assaulting minimum-wage workers for it. Fans of Youtubers like Logan Paul or PewDiePie are basically private armies of mass action, weaponized by rich assholes to further cement their own influence.
They conduct themselves with rage, and send violent rage everywhere, because rage creates fan engagement, and Fandom cannot sustain itself on anything but rage to survive. It’s in the Youtube algorithms, in the way virality is measured, in the way decisions are made on every corporate level. It can’t be stopped or contained, because the air is taken out of the world, and everyone else is suffocating just to get by.
I love being a fan of things. Art and music and film and literature have touched my soul — and yours — in ways I could not even begin to describe. But when corporations control the public sphere, they can direct and shape the legions of Fans to uncritically consume neverending Content. To draw battle lines between what is the purview of the Fandom and what is not. Does anyone even want that? Can Fandom even exist outside of this corporate paradigm?
It used to. Maybe it will again. But I don’t see it happening anytime soon.