Tag Archives: fandom

How The Idea Of “Toxic Fandom” Is Fundamentally Flawed

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The internet is a vast, wonderful place full of mesmerizing gifs, amazing stories, and the collective knowledge of our entire species. I would argue that the internet is one of humanity’s most important tools since the invention of fire. I strongly believe that is has done more good any other tool we’ve created.

I have a feeling that this rosy view of the internet is a minority opinion. These days, all the good the internet does tends to get lost in the stories that highlight its many dangers. I don’t deny that there are dangers there. The internet does have some dark places where hate, harassment, and outright depravity are on full display.

More and more, it seems, the internet is becoming an enabler of a new manifestation of popular culture. It’s called “toxic fandom” and it relies on the greatest strengths of the internet to bring out the absolute worst in people. It didn’t start with the heated fan reaction of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but it certainly made it relevant.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. There are assholes on the internet. There are also assholes in real life. The internet doesn’t make them that way. It just gives them a platform to be an asshole on a larger scale. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of the internet, but one that tends to obscure a larger narrative.

That’s because, much like inane terms such as “toxic masculinity,” the idea of toxic fandom relies on a series of assumptions that only ever have a sliver of truth behind them. It builds around this idea of there’s this grand, over-arching effort by immature, angry young men who secretly wish they could sexually harass women with impunity. It’s not quite on the level of an Alex Jones type conspiracy, but it’s close.

There have always been overly-passionate fans. It existed long before the internet and would still exist if the internet disappeared tomorrow. “Toxic fandom,” and there’s a reason I’m putting it in quotes, is something very different.

This doesn’t involve obsession with a particular celebrity. It involves a particular type of media like a movie, a TV show, or a video game. In some respects, this sort of fandom is a byproduct of overwhelming success. When something like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” comes along, it resonates with an audience on a profound level. That sort of impact can last a lifetime.

I can attest to the power of that impact through my love of comic books. I’ve even cited a few that I find deeply moving, both in good ways and in not-so-good ways. Most everybody has had an experience like that at some point in their life, whether it’s their reaction to seeing “Titanic” for the first time or the feeling they get after they binge-watch “Breaking Bad.”

The toxic part usually comes when the media they’ve come to love manifests in a way that’s not just disappointing. It undermines those powerful feelings they’ve come to associate with that media. The results can be very distressing and until recently, the only way to express that distress was to sulk quietly in a darkened room.

Then, the internet comes along and suddenly, fans have a way to voice their feelings, for better and for worse. They can even connect with fans who feel like they do so that they don’t feel alone. The human tendency to form groups is one of the most fundamental acts anyone can do as a member of a highly social species.

Now, there’s nothing inherently “toxic” about that behavior. It has only made the news because the passions/vitriol of fans is more visible, thanks to the internet. Just browse any comments section of any movie or show on IMDB. Chances are you’ll find a few people who claim that this thing they once loved has been ruined and will use every possible medium to voice their displeasure.

This is where the “toxic” aspects of fandom start to have real-world consequences. Most recently, Kelly Marie Tran became the face of those victimized by toxic fandoms. After her portrayal of Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she became the most polarizing figure in the history of Star Wars since Jar Jar Binks.

The story surrounding Ms. Tran’s harassment, which was objectively horrible, became vindication for those who believed that the Star Wars fanbase had become a mess of angry, hate-filled fanboys. They didn’t like that something they loved was changing and becoming more diverse. As such, their criticisms don’t matter. They may as well be wounded storm troopers in a room full of angry wookies.

The problem with this assumption is the same problem we get when someone writes off facts as fake news or diversity efforts as a neo-Marxist conspiracy. It’s a simple, convenient excuse to ignore possible flaws and justify personal assumptions. It also conflates the inescapable truth that assholes exist in the world and there’s nothing we can do about it.

None of this is to imply that harassment is justified or that fans can be exceedingly unreasonable. By the same token, this doesn’t imply that studios don’t deserve criticism when they attempt to revamp a beloved franchise in a way that does not keep with the spirit of the original. It’s only when criticism gets lost in the outrage that the “toxic” behaviors become more prominent.

It’s within that outrage, though, where the true flaws in the “toxic fanbase” narrative really break down. To a large extent, the “toxicity” that many complain about aren’t a product of unhealthy attitudes. They’re a manifestation of an inherent flaw in the relationship between fans and those who produce the iconic media they love.

To illustrate that flaw, think back to a recent controversy involving a “toxic fanbase.” Before the reaction “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” became the poster child for this issue, the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake was the most prominent example. It earned a lot of hatred for reasons that I’d rather not scrutinize.

With that hatred in mind, imagine a long-time Ghostbusters fan seeking to express their dismay. They decide to write a kind, detailed, and thoughtful letter to the studio, the director, and anyone else involved detailing their dismay and their criticisms. They may even cite specific examples on what they felt was wrong with the movie.

Chances are this sort of thoughtful, well-worded message would get deleted, ignored, or just plain lost in the digital landscape. Even if the head of Sony studios read it and agreed with every point made, they wouldn’t respond. They wouldn’t do anything ot change it. That would just be too inconvenient and it would look bad publicly.

From the perspective of the fan writing the letter, though, it sends the message that their sentiment doesn’t matter. Their passion for the media doesn’t matter. They might as well not even exist in the eyes of the producers. The only way for them to even acknowledge their existance is to be louder, angrier, and even a little meaner. Even if the reponse is negative, it at least acknowledges their existence.

It’s not the same as trolling. Trolls just want upset people for the fun of it. Fans voicing their displeasure are more sincere in the sense that they believe they’re protecting something they love. Whether or not that’s misguided is debatable. Some, namely those who harass and make threats, are more misguided than others. However, they only ever make up a very small percentage of fans.

In the end, that’s the most important perspective to have when it comes to fandom. Those who are the loudest tend to be the most obnoxious, but they’re loud because they feel like they have to be. The internet just gives them a way to be heard, which is something most fans haven’t had before.

That’s still not an excuse for being an asshole, but it’s also not an excuse for using those same assholes to call an entire fanbase toxic. It overlooks and undermines the genuine and sincere love people have of these cultural icons. As as a result, when someone feels like their love is being ignored, that’s when toxic hate often finds a way to fill that void.

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When (And When Not) To Listen To Fan Backlash

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In Hollywood, there’s somewhat of a paradox when it comes to ego. You need to have a certain amount of arrogance to believe you can make the kinds of movies that fans, critics, and executives who love swimming in pools of cash all love. At the same time, you also need to be humble enough to know when your ideas are crap.

I’ve been writing almost daily since I was 15-years-old. I’m humble enough to know that I’ve written some pretty crappy things in that time. However, I’m also arrogant enough to believe that I have many great stories to tell, some of which I put in my novels and some of which I put in sexy short stories.

It’s a bit easier for someone like me because I’m not a famous director, artist, or novelist just yet. I can still walk down the street without body guards and not be harassed by fans or stalkers. For someone like Rian Johnson, though, I imagine it takes a very different blend of arrogance and humility to navigate the creative process.

I’m sure that blend has been more erratic than usual for the past several months for Mr. Johnson. There’s already a sizable contingent of Star Wars fans who see him the same way Batman fans see Joel Shumacher after “Batman and Robin.” To say fans had mixed reactions to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” would be the most polite way of saying that these have been the most difficult times for those fans since the days of Jar Jar Binks.

While I made my sentiments on the movie clear last year, I don’t deny that fans have some legitimate gripes about the movie. There are indeed times when it feels like the movie is trying to push an agenda and it doesn’t push it very well. There are also fairly sizable plot holes that are difficult to overlook, which may also reflect some creative upheavals that occurred behind the scenes.

Regardless of how you feel about “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” or the criticism surrounding it, there’s no denying that it had issues. That was going to happen, regardless of how the movie turned out. However, it’s the way Mr. Johnson reacted to those issues that’s most revealing here. It’s also somewhat of a lesson in both arrogance and humility.

Since the film’s release, Rian Johnson hasn’t been willfully ignorant about fan criticisms. To his credit, he hasn’t resorted to name-calling or scoffing. He’s been fairly diplomatic, for the most part. In an interview with Business Insider, this was his primary response.

Having been a “Star Wars” fan my whole life, and having spent most of my life on the other side of the curb and in that fandom, it softens the blow a little bit.

I’m aware through my own experience that, first of all, the fans are so passionate, they care so deeply — sometimes they care very violently at me on Twitter. But it’s because they care about these things, and it hurts when you’re expecting something specific and you don’t get it from something that you love. It always hurts, so I don’t take it personally if a fan reacts negatively and lashes out on me on Twitter. That’s fine. It’s my job to be there for that. Like you said, every fan has a list of stuff they want a “Star Wars” movie to be and they don’t want a “Star Wars” movie to be. You’re going to find very few fans out there whose lists line up.

And I also know the same way the original movies were personal for Lucas. Lucas never made a “Star Wars” movie by sitting down and thinking, “What do the fans want to see?” And I knew if I wrote wondering what the fans would want, as tempting as that is, it wouldn’t work, because people would still be shouting at me, “F— you, you ruined ‘Star Wars,'” and I would make a bad movie. And ultimately, that’s the one thing nobody wants.

And let me just add that 80-90% of the reaction I’ve gotten from Twitter has been really lovely. There’s been a lot of joy and love from fans. When I talk about the negative stuff, that’s not the full picture of the fans at all.

While I agree with most of what Mr. Johnson said, it’s the bold parts that I find most questionable. It’s at that point where Mr. Johnson goes from being diplomatic to showing signs of the kind of arrogance that undercuts criticism, as a whole.

First off, the idea that George Lucas never made the original “Star Wars” with fans in mind is an unfair comparison. For one, that movie had no fan base to build from and no fans to please. Moreover, Lucas purposefully employed the kind of hero’s journey narrative that had been pleasing fans for centuries. The fact that Luke Skywalker’s story fits Joseph Campbell’s heroic archetype to the letter is not a coincidence.

Secondly, the passions of fans aren’t just built around wanting to see more light saber battles and/or Princess Leia in a bikini. Fans may be unruly and unreasonable at times, but they are the ones that make franchises like Star Wars so successful. They’re the ones who wait in line at the theaters, dress up at comic cons, and spark heated discussions on message boards.

The fans matter is what I’m saying. When there’s an obvious disparity between what the fans are saying and what critics are saying, then there are clearly larger forces at work that go beyond fans being petty. That’s when backlash becomes more than just complaining.

It’s one thing for a handful of fans to overly scrutinize a movie. It’s quite another when there’s a large contingent of fans express a wide variety of concerns, ranging from agenda-pushing to real gaps in the plot. That kind of variety implies that there were missteps beyond not making clear whether Han or Greedo shoot first.

When the criticisms don’t have to get that petty, it’s usually a sign that you should grit your teeth, thicken your skin, and sift through the anger and outrage to see what didn’t work in the final product. Doing so doesn’t mean admitting that you’re a bad director or artist. It just means that you’re willing to take in criticism and learn from it.

Rian Johnson, as well-mannered as he has been since “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” came out, never gives the impression that he, an admitted fan, took the criticisms of fans too seriously. It was akin to getting information from a test screening and completely throwing it out, something movies often do at their own peril.

It’s one thing to have a vision that you want to see through. I certainly felt that way when I wrote some of my novels. It’s quite another when that vision becomes so rigid that you stop listening to people trying to tell you that parts of it are flawed. Mr. Johnson seemed to ignore those flaws while listening to those who told him what he wanted to hear. Being a successful Hollywood type, that’s kind of unavoidable.

That’s also why maintaining a sense of humility is so important. I never assume that a vision that I have for a novel or short story is inherently flawless. In fact, I work under the assumption that it’s crap and needs refinement. The creative process itself is always ongoing and anyone who isn’t trying to improve their craft is dooming themselves to stagnation. Listening to fans, even annoying ones, is part of that process.

Now, I don’t know Rian Johnson and won’t pretend to understand the kind of pressure he faced from Disney to make “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” another billion-dollar hit. I also won’t pretend to understand what it feels like to see all sorts of hateful comments about how he ruined an iconic franchise. That takes thick skin that not a lot of people have.

However, when there’s an obvious disconnect between your vision and the sentiments of fans, one that is backed up by more than a handful of mean tweets, then ignoring the backlash is one of the worst things you can do. Trolls can be mean, but at a certain point, blaming trolls is no more credible than blaming the Illuminati.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and Rian Johnson, it’s that there are times when backlash is an unavoidable part of the creative process and there are times when it’s a sign that there’s a flaw in that process. The signs were there for Mr. Johnson. He chose to ignore them in the name of pursuing his own vision and arrogantly believing that it would work.

That arrogance isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of creativity, but it is a major risk and the fan backlash implies that the risk didn’t entirely pay off. J. J. Abrams played it safe in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” sticking to the tried and true formula that the original trilogy made so iconic. While it also had its share of criticism, it was minor and narrow compared to what Mr. Johnson got with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

The fact that J. J. Abrams is coming back to direct the next Star Wars movie is another sign that there was more than just trolling behind the backlash surrounding “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” While I still enjoyed the movie, personally, I believe the movie would’ve benefited by listening to the fans.

For Mr. Johnson and Mr. Abrams, I don’t envy the difficult position they’re in, having to direct the path of such an iconic franchise. However, if I could offer them any feedback whatsoever, it would be this. Fans are usually pretty forgiving. If Star Wars fans can forgive Jar Jar Binks, then they can forgive the flaws in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” It just takes one solid story that reminds fans why they love Star Wars in the first place.

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