For folks who love to love pop culture, San Diego Comic-Con International is a prime spot to be. For four days, fandom rules the San Diego Convention Center and immediate surrounding area as people in costumes toting bags, poster tubes, and boxes with coveted merchandise spill out into every available inch of hallway and sidewalk. People pose for pictures and trade compliments and interests — the enthusiasm is unending.
Increasingly over the years, though, fandom has developed a more corrosive element.
There are a few names for it. Toxic fandom. Protective fandom. When we talk about either, we’re talking about behavior that includes hating on creators, celebrities, other fans, or on creative decisions we disagree with. It’s something that demarcates a right and wrong way to approach a piece of pop culture. Sometimes it’s a matter of angry sputtering on social media, sometimes it’s death threats, rape threats, and publishing personal information online for the sake of harassing someone.
At a place like Comic-Con, on one level you get the idea that people don’t want to spend much time talking about the nasty side of fandom. But the fact is that many of the fandoms represented at Comic-Con — everything from Star Wars to adult cartoons — have had notable online blowups.
One of the most prominent example of this fandom in-fighting is the public back-and-forth between Star Wars fans voicing disdain for elements of The Last Jedi and those wondering what the big deal is. From sending death threats to director Rian Johnson, to trying to remake the film to better suit their preferences, cliques within the Star Wars fandom have gone way beyond swamping message boards with complaints.
And you don’t have to go too far before you start seeing a backlash that becomes more extreme than quibbles with the Casino subplot or how Luke’s character was handled. Videos titled “Women Are Ruining Star Wars,” “Why Feminism is Ruining Movies,” can quickly take over your recommendations in YouTube. Subreddits focused on the Men’s Rights movement or GamerGate expectedly remain outraged by perceived slights.
The rapid escalation of these fan backlashes isn’t limited to the Star Wars franchise. The most recent Tomb Raider film was railed against because of fan expectations for Laura Croft’s body. Pockets of Marvel Comics fans have spent years outraged over the company elevating heroes like Riri Johnson, Jane Foster and Sam Wilson over the established (white male) Tony Stark, Thor and Steve Rogers in their respective superhero roles.
Even something seemingly innocuous, like a new art style applied to the Thundercats reboot, can attract untold amounts of rage.
Fans get angry
When did fandom take this turn?
Over the past decades, fandom has undergone a transformation, becoming more focused on not just the thing but the overpowering love of the thing. As author Glen Weldon wrote in his 2016 book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, “For years they have lurked in the shadowy corners of popular culture, quietly pursuing their niche interests among themselves, keeping their heads down to avoid the inquisitive, judgmental gaze of the rest of the world.”
And then the internet happened.
Geek culture has gone mainstream. It’s not only the 135,000 attendees who turn up but the countless studios and networks vying for attention, dropping new trailers, exclusive footage and immersive experiences sometimes referred to as activations.
The term “nerd” isn’t the pejorative it was decades ago and seemingly falls out of every other person’s mouth to describe basic interest in any given topic.
This shift has given a seriousness to fandom like never before, said Paul Booth, associate professor of media and cinema studies/communication technology at DePaul University. And with the dawn of the internet, there are plenty of platforms to say exactly what you think.
That’s not a bad thing. But for some folks who hold their fandoms so tightly that they fuse with how they identify as a person, it can get tricky. Any change can feel like a personal affront.
“Those two tensions collide when fans become so insular that they think their way is the only way,” Booth said.
In a Reddit AMA in 2016, Weldon described it as “eating our own,” talking about the trouble with saying “you don’t love the thing I love precisely in the same way, to the same extent and for the precisely the same reasons that I do, therefore you are doing it wrong.”
It’s hard to say exactly how big of a problem toxic fandom is. Booth tends to think it’s a minority of fans.
But for as many folks who will tell you that Comic-Con is an immensely inclusive place, with good vibes to spare, the event isn’t immune.
One YouTube video called “SJW’s Have Taken Over Comic-Con #SDCC,” mocks the five “wokest” panels of the event, including ones on Afrofuturism (a movement that goes back decades, even before the term was coined in the early 90s) and queer comics for queer kids.
And if you follow Tom King, who writes Batman for DC, you might have seen that he’s hitting up Comic-Con with a bodyguard entow after receiving death threats over the 50th anniversary issue.
Granted, King might be the only writer here with a bodyguard. But regardless of how dominant toxic fans are, that behavior threatens to give a bad name to nerds everywhere, Booth said. He even referenced how he’s come across folks who don’t want to admit to liking Cartoon Network’s Rick and Morty because of public fiascos involving everything from its creator’s treatment of women in the writer’s room to how fans respond to female characters on the show.
“That’s a step backwards, that’s putting fans back where they were in the 70s and 80s where it was embarrassing to be a fan,” Booth said.
He sees some hope, though. If you scan the Comic-Con schedule, you’ll see a variety of panels covering topics like combating the fake geek girl fallacy, entitlement, gatekeeping, or promoting body positivity, or highlighting some area like the women of Star Wars.
It’s not just panels, either. Prominent companies like DC are trying to make sure that at least within their own walled gardens, toxicity doesn’t take root.
Admittedly, it came as a surprise to see DC integrating community conversation and message boards into its DC Universe comics and video streaming platform. But executives were loud and clear in conversations with Techhnews about their intention to guard against the worst actors within its fandom.
Craig Hunegs, Warner Bros. Television’s president of business and strategy, said simply that “we’re not going to tolerate” the kinds of negative conversations that can occur on Facebook, Twitter and Discord, three platforms that were mentioned specifically by either Hunegs or DC Chief Creative Officer and Publisher Jim Lee.
In much the same way, Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall and executive producer Matt Strevens wanted to make it clear that the long-running BBC show is for everyone, regardless of the Doctor’s gender. (For the first time, the Doctor will be played by a woman, Jodie Whittaker.)
Booth said part of the talking about the issues that exist is to show that there’s more folks on the positive end of fandom than not.
“You don’t counter it by being toxic back, you can counter it by saying you are a small minority of people and we are a mass that does not believe in what you believe in,” he said. “You drown it out.”
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