Draining the Fandom Swamp
In a box on my bookshelf there’s a movie ticket stub. That ticket stub is for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I walked away from that movie loving Star Wars, loving the lore and loving all the fans that joined me in either being a Rebel, Sith or Jedi.
Today, I woke up to the news that Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi) recently left Instagram following months of harassment. Tran is not the only Star Wars performer who left social media after being harassed. Daisy Ridley (who plays Rey) left Instagram after people attacked her for her performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Hayden Christensen (the original Anakin Skywalker) left social media and I think, by now, you can see where I’m going with this.
Toxicity in Fandoms
Recently, Star Wars has become one of the most toxic fandoms around and today, as a proud Sith and generalized fan of many things, I want to talk about how this happened: how fandoms got to toxic and why it’s so awful.
First, when I say “toxic” I don’t mean a fandom that is simply challenging or full of spirited discussions. When I say toxic I mean a fandom prone to threats, insults and other less than savory tactics to get their “points” across. Some of my fellow Fangirls here have experienced this and we all spent more time than I like admitting talking about this painful subject. Our very own Sheri was kind enough to share a screenshot as an example to explain what I mean when I say “toxic fandom”.
There is no situation where, even if you didn’t like a movie, you attack a person and her family. This boiled all of our blood collectively. Sheri handled the situation with a style and grace that I find enviable.
Here’s where I’m going to pause for those saying:
But wait! I really didn’t like this! And my opinions deserve to be heard!
Fun fact: I didn’t enjoy any of the most recent Star Wars movies. I bristled at Rogue One and its strange tentacle monster despite its amazing Darth Vader scene. I wasn’t fond of The Last Jedi despite loving Porgs. I found The Force Awakens to be a gender-bent retread of A New Hope. I don’t say these things to be a contrarian but to prove a point: nowhere in my indignation with the new canon Star Wars films did I feel the need to attack any of the actors or directors of these films, I simply didn’t watch them. I voiced my opinions and left it at that.
Star Wars isn’t the only toxic fandom. Honestly, if you talk to the right person, almost all fan cultures have toxic parts of them. Fan-gating is a reality for many women who are into comics and many still face harassment and ridicule in public spaces. Cosplayers can be vicious (I say that being one). Anime fans recently have taken to hurling insults and some of the most popular Western cartoons have been utter cesspools! Take Steven Universe as an example. I’ve openly said I’m a little tired of Steven Universe and I was called homophobic for it. Me. An actually queer person. I was called homophobic for not liking a magical girl space rock psuedo-anime.
What’s interesting to me is how we got here. I’m not as young as my pretty face may lead on. I grew up in the dirty dredges of the Internet and online fan culture. I remember Quizilla and Xanga and using anime lyrics as your message on MySpace. I remember having to print out doujins and physically hand them to friends. I remember having to wait in long lines at comic book shops for physical media and I can sadly say that we’ve always been toxic. Each fan community has had aspects of toxicity be it racism, misogyny or sexism. But during those years, it had to be done face to face. If someone wanted to say I wasn’t fan enough, it had to be said directly into my eyes. If someone wanted to call me a racial slur in costume, it had to be done to my face and within earshot. If someone wanted to disagree with my shipping alignment chart, it needed to be voiced directly or in a public forum for all to see. There was no place to hide and you had to stand by your words and if you were wrong, dammit you ate those words.
IOT: Internet of Trolls
The Internet made it very easy to spew venom. I think that’s the nature of the beast. It’s easy to attack someone on Twitter and it’s easy to say things behind anonymous icons or in direct private messages. It’s hard to say the inner most thoughts publicly and with conviction. This is why I’m so proud of being a Prince of Unpopular Opinions, it takes guts to stand behind what you believe and do so eloquently without having to stoop to insults. I also think a lot of it is immaturity. When you reach a certain age, it’s just not worth being up in arms over a movie anymore. I have bills to pay, I don’t have time to argue over a Star War.
But there’s one point that I don’t want to ignore. Fans by their very nature are defensive. For so long, many of us have been bullied and the nature of how adversarial fan culture has been since its inception, it just got easier to be more toxic when some of those barriers were broken. Additionally, we became more inclusive, only keeping to our known tribes and not seeking out the opinions of others. While I can think that The Last Jedi was hot garbage, I love listening to people who love the movie: maybe they can show me something I didn’t see. I think at times, and to quote O-Ren Ishii, “in a respectful manner”, it’s appropriate to hear the opposition’s side. Oftentimes when I mention my gripes with a film or show, many can at least understand where I’m coming and still none of this has devolved into racial slurs, attacks or insults.
Food For Thought
Fan culture isn’t a small niche thing anymore. It’s not this hidden group of 10-50 people on Newgrounds. Our nostalgia is a billion dollar industry. People are watching us and people are not pleased. Other fans are not pleased. This is not how we do things. This is not how true fans do things.
We are all responsible for making the things we love from comics to anime to Star Wars popular; we owe it to the next generation of fans to not ruin these things for them. We built this swamp, now it’s our time to drain it.
You can disagree with someone and not be rude. You can not like a movie and not trash the actors; please know that I have not ignored much of the internalized sexism in this regard: if anything Poe (Oscar Isaac) is the objectively worst part of The Last Jedi but people have taken issue with Admiral Holdo (a strong female character with excellent fashion sense) and Rose (Who is played by an Asian-American actress and known member of the Resistance) but that’s a post for another day. It all comes down to a very simple fact: it doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t have to be in this swamp.
We can do better. We have to.